Along with housing the large campus clock that helps MU students keep track of their day, the Memorial Union Tower is also home to a secret society’s tradition. The members of Mystical 7, an honorary society that recognizes students on Tap Day for their leadership, service, integrity and scholarship, climb the stairs inside the tower up to the roof and sign the wooden door that leads outside. Names are also scratched along the inner walls of the stairwell, tracing a path not frequently taken by students.
The gothic-style tower was built in 1922 and cost $500,000. It was dedicated in 1926 to honor all the MU students who were killed in World War I. Their names are etched on the outer walls of the arch that joins Memorial Union’s north and south buildings. Following World War II, metal plaques were added to remember the more than 250 students killed in that war.
The tower, which stands 142 feet high, is seldom visited and is not for those who are claustrophobic or afraid of heights. The first “floor” of the tower, located above the archway, is accessible from the third floor of the south building. There are two storage facilities that take up almost the entire room, housing parts for the clock and building that maintenance staff uses for repairs and other work.
High on the wall above the storage rooms are the two faces of the clock, which look toward the east and west ends of campus. Although the clock faces are housed here, the mechanisms that control the clock are still a ways up.
Entering the stairwell is like entering a dark, dank dungeon. The walls are made of crumbling stone and the temperature drops significantly. There isn’t much light; just a small window every now and then. The rusted metal stairs wind up and around the well, which is only about five feet wide.
Fifty-nine steps later, you reach a solid metal door, padlocked shut. Catch your breath, brush the rust and stone from your hands and enter the clock’s control center. Two shingled huts contain the mechanisms that control the hands of the clock and the bells that announce the time.
The large pendulum swings back and forth in one of the huts, looking like it will slow down and come to a stop any second. A large, overhead metal rod crosses the room and connects to the pendulum mechanism. It controls the hands of the clock. Everything in the tower is controlled mechanically, except for the pulley system that controls the chimes.
In the center of the room are the bells; one large striker and four smaller chimes. The bells are made of thick, cold metal and hang from an open wooden structure. A clicking sound from the control mechanisms warns you to cover your ears; the bells are about to ring, announcing a new hour in Columbia.
The room’s ceiling extends as high as the roof. Eight gothic-style windows provide a scenic view of the campus and downtown Columbia in every direction. The windows are open, with only a grate to cover them.
There’s not much to the room, save for the bells and their controls. As you walk around, dust and dirt swirls up with each step. The door to the roof of the tower is on another level, about 50 stairs away. The thick, wooden door, the one with the names of Mystical 7, is locked.
As you begin your descent, don’t look down the stairs; the sense of vertigo can overwhelm. Going down is trickier. The tight spiral of the stairs, combined with the narrow tunnel and sheer vertical construction, requires careful placement of your feet and hands. Luckily, you can brace your arms against the walls for stability.
Being back on the lower level is a relief and walking back into Memorial Union South is like entering a different world; the walls are smooth, the temperature is comfortable and the rooms, refreshingly, are well-lit.