A chimney swift tower here in Kent, Ohio

This year is rapidly coming to a close and I still haven't posted about the coolest project of 2021. Time to fix that! I first learned that my city was planning to build a tower to house chimney swifts way back in late 2019 when Rhonda Boyd, Kent's lead engineer, called me up to pitch the project.

save the swifts flyer

Rhonda explained to me that chimney swifts used to live primarily in hollow trees which are now in short supply, especially in urban areas, so the birds have adapted to live in chimneys. Unfortunately modern buildings often do not have traditional chimneys so when old buildings are torn down and replaced by new ones, the birds again face habitat loss. The planned demolition of our town's former police station was threatening to displace a large colony of swifts, and Rhonda did not want to stand by and watch that happen without providing them with a new place to live, so she began applying for grants and seeking private donations in order to build the swifts a permanent home of their own. When she asked if I would be interested in making tiles to decorate the structure and help educate people about it's purpose, of course I said "yes!" and began to sculpt some large chimney swift designs.

chimney swift tiles in progress

Then came 2020 and it felt like the world was ending. So many things got put on hold, including this project. I assumed the tower would not happen after all, another casualty of COVID. Rhonda herself was unlucky and got a nasty case of COVID but thankfully she recovered, and by the end of 2020 plans to build the tower began to move forward again.

chimney swift tower architectural rendering

The winter of 2020 felt bleak in many ways, but this project project was a source of hope for me. I started experimenting with a new red clay that would be as resilient as possible to Ohio's brutal winters. My normal clay has an absorption rate of 1.5% which is considered fine for outdoors, but the new clay has a rate of only .25%, and less absorption means even less potential for frost damage. I tested different glazes on the new clay, and froze and thawed samples repeatedly to be sure the tiles would survive many winters.

freezing a handmade tile to test for frost resiliance

In late spring I began to make the tiles that would be installed in the tower. To be installed among bricks, they needed to be twice as thick as my normal tiles, with deep grooves in the back to hold the mortar. There was definitely a learning curve to working in this new way, with a new clay.

chimney swift handmade tiles in the molds

Soft clay being molded into extra thick tiles

Tiles that have been fired once and are in the process of being glazed

Tiles that have been fired once and are in the process of being glazed

handmade tiles for the chimney swift tower in downtown kent ohio

The smaller, 4x4 inch tiles complete and ready to be installed.

In early June the tower went up over the course of just a few days thanks to the skill and hard work of brothers Mike and John of Wischt & Sons Construction. Since the tiles weren't all finished at that point, the masons were kind enough to leave spaces for them so they could be installed after the fact.

masons building a chimney swift tower in downtown kent ohio

Some of the larger 8x8 inch tiles cracked during firing and had to be remade (never rush the drying of thick pieces!) so the masons ended up installing the the tiles in three separate sessions. Rhonda was onsite every time to make sure the layout matched her plans!

laying out tiles for the chimney swift tower in downtown kent ohio

The last few tiles went in at the beginning of July, and the custom gate for the clean-out was installed in early October.

masons at work installing handmade tiles in the chimney swift tower in downtown kent ohio

Last couple of tiles going in!

completed chimney swift tower with gate

All finished!

Over two years in the making, it now stands complete in downtown Kent, at the intersection of East Erie Street and Haymaker parkway, between the new police station and the Lester A. Lefton Esplanade extension. It is across Haymaker Parkway from the Kent State University Hotel and Conference center. Everyone is welcome to come see it in person! The only thing missing is the chimney swifts themselves, who will hopefully find it and move right in when they migrate north again in spring. Fingers crossed!

 the handmade tiles that adorn the chimney swift tower in kent ohio

If you have managed to get this far and you still want to know more, thank you! Below are links to several news stories about this project. This has generated more interest that any project I have worked on. I even got to be on TV and the radio!

tv news story about kent ohio's chimney swift tower


 wksu interview about kent ohio chimney swift tower




BIG THANK YOU to you to Rhonda Boyd for making this project happen and inviting me to be a part of it. You very much deserved the award you won for this project, the 2021 Portage Park District Foundation Award for Environmental Activism:


And thank you to the Kent Environmental Council and every other person and organization who contributed to this project. I am so grateful I live in a city that values both art and wildlife.

Ceramic Handmade Tile Installations, Handmade Tile, Ohio Tiles - , Emily Margaret Ulm

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