For the first time since 15-year-old Paul Revere helped ring them, America's oldest ''peal'' of bells has come down to earth. The eight little-known bells in Boston's Old North Church tower - where Paul Revere later hung the twin lanterns that signaled the start of the American Revolution in 1775 - were swung out of their belfry March 2 as part of a $110, 000 project to rebuild the aging wooden frame and bell headstocks.
Cast in England in 1744, and predating the Liberty Bell, the bells weigh up to three-quarters of a ton apiece. ''They represent the first peal of bells in the Western Hemisphere,'' says the Rev. Robert W. Golledge, vicar of the Old North Church, who describes them as ''a precious treasure that really belongs to this country.''
Last restored in 1894, the bells lay silent for most of this century. The church, which began raising money last year to refurbish the fittings, was well behind its goal when the Associated General Contractors of Massachusetts heard of the project. The AGC, a trade group of construction firms, asked its members to contribute labor and equipment.
''So many people offered to help,'' said Donald Blair of Vappi & Co., ''that there weren't enough things for them to do.''
One firm sent the bright red crane that filled narrow Salem Street in front of the brick church. Others contributed rigging, trucking, masonry, painting, and insurance - and even a protective iron fence to surround the bells at Boston's Museum of Science, where they will be displayed for the next three months.
The bells will be back in place in time to ring on Sept. 3 - the 200th anniversary of the signing of the Treaty of Paris, which ended the Revolutionary War.