The absolute best symbol of the beauty of the Crescenta Valley (man-made anyway) is the charming stone church at Rosemont and Foothill, St. Luke’s of the Mountains. Built from a painting done by a famous artist, it is visually magnificent. There are many other aspects of the church – the stained glass, the landscaping, the native stone, even the recent philosophical schism that caused years of legal wrangling over a breakaway congregation — that have made this a fascinating focal point for our community.
But there is also an interesting auditory aspect to this central feature of the valley.
Suspended a hundred feet off the ground in a lofty tower are 6000 pounds of thick brass tubing. Every 15 minutes they are struck rhythmically by huge steel pistons propelled by an ancient electrical system that clacks and sparks like something from Dr. Frankenstein’s laboratory. The sound that comes from these massive chimes is rich and full, calling out the hour, yet resonating with a timeless quality. The Chimes of St. Luke’s have rung across the valley for 85 years, providing background music for all the romances, tragedies and comedies that have played out in La Crescenta for most of the 20th century.
The story behind the chimes is fascinating. In 1926, the chimes were given to the church by the Watchorn family in memory of their only son, Emory Watchorn, a brave pilot of WWI. He had volunteered and been assigned to pilot big, three-engine Caproni bombers from Italy, crossing the icy Alps to bomb targets in Austria. The open cockpits of aircraft back then made life for pilots a living hell of cold and chronic disease, and young Emory finished out the war both with medals for bravery and with mortally damaged lungs. Two years after returning physically broken from the nightmare of wartime Europe, the bright young son of the Watchorns died. Absolutely devastated, the Watchorns poured their considerable wealth into memorializing their son, and, among other monuments, an automated chime system was donated to St. Luke’s in their son’s memory. The Deagan Company of Chicago, makers of the finest brass percussion instruments, built these chimes systems. There were once 400 of these elaborate, automated music machines in the US, and hundreds more across the world. The total number of these surviving systems is down to just over a hundred, notable regionally at Scotty’s Castle in Death Valley, the bell towers of USC, and oddly, the Playboy Mansion. Worldwide, chimes just like ours ring-out in Jerusalem and Vatican City, so our little church is in good company!
This archaic and sometimes mysterious system, which can be likened to an enormous and infinitely complicated music box, needs constant maintenance, and it falls to volunteers to do so. The current “chime guy” is local artist Ted Baumgart, who, besides having a family, runs his own business, a highly successful conceptual art and set design studio. Where he finds the time to patch-up the constantly breaking chime system is anyone’s guess, but apparently he robs from the “sleep” column in his daily agenda. Like a rare vintage car, parts are hard to find, and sometimes non-existent. Sections of the system have been rewired and rebuilt by generations of volunteers in creative and mysterious ways, making repair a constantly moving target. Currently, two chimes are down, one of them the F-note that calls out the hour, but Ted is optimistic about repairing them soon. Ted tells me that the massive strikers up in the bell tower are long overdue for a rebuild — a job for an expert. There are only two guys in the US that repair these systems, and one makes a leisurely 2-year-long circuit of the country fixing the few systems that are left.
He was just here earlier this year, specifically to bring Ted up to speed on his new “labor of love,” and he’ll be back in a year and a half. I’m hoping at that time the money will be available to do the good work of refurbishing this community treasure.
Mike Lawler is the president of the Historical Society of the
Crescenta Valley. Reach him at firstname.lastname@example.org.