Funded during the Depression by the pocketbooks of a newspaper advice columnist’s thousands-strong fan base, the bell tower on Belle Isle rose during the early days of World War II, dedicated to peace.
Annie Louise Leslie came to work at the Detroit News in 1919. She wrote what became an enormously popular advice column under the pen name Nancy Brown, her real identity always kept a tightly held secret. In 1930, the reach of her column was revealed when her suggestion that her readers head over to the new Detroit Institute of Arts led to the museum being inundated by some 35,000 visitors.
Starting in 1934, she used her popularity to encourage her readers to attend religious Sunrise Services on Belle Isle, Detroit’s 982-acre city park in the center of the Detroit River. Tens of thousands showed up.
Following up on a reader’s suggestion, Brown went on to ask her audience to support the construction of a carillon (musical bell) tower in the park. At the height of the Great Depression, more than 60,000 readers donated small amounts until they had raised enough to build the tower. Construction began in 1939, with a copper time capsule containing news clippings about the creation of the tower entombed in the cornerstone.
The 85-foot Neo-Gothic tower was dedicated on June 17, 1940, in front of a crowd estimated by the city police to be 100,000 strong. As the bronze bells played, Nancy Brown revealed her face to the crowd for the first time. Later the same day, her grandniece pulled aside the ceremonial draping to reveal a bas relief of the columnist on the bronze doors, donated to the tower by the Detroit News.
Nancy Brown retired in 1942, and died six years later. Staff at the Detroit news kept her column going under her pen name until 1985.
Vandalism in the 1970s resulted in the tower going silent for several years, but a modern restoration replaced the original bells with a computer controlled 49-bell carillon which plays every half hour.
The cornerstone reads: “Dedicated to peace in honor of Nancy Brown by readers of her Experience Column in The Detroit News. A.D. 1939.”