When I began buying and servicing broken antique clocks I got compared frequently to Antiques Roadshow. Friends and family asked if I had found any hidden gems on eBay, or if I was going to be able to fix up broken clocks and sell them for retirement money.
“Retirement?” I’d reply. “I’d be lucky if it would cover lunch.”
I kept meticulous notes on the amount of time and money that went into each clock, and spent hours researching each clock in hopes of learning all the ins and outs of the dying field of mechanical clock repair and, of course, in hopes that I would one day stumble upon that priceless forgotten clock that would make my fortune. I found myself drawn as much to the research aspect as to the mechanical tinkering. On an inspired day in Summer 2016 it occurred to me that I could do a special on a clock that was both rare and close to home – the Columbia Sr. High School Clock Tower. For those who haven’t looked recently, no, the clock on the tower does not run. Never did I expect to find a rare gem of an antique hidden inside this tower.
I graduated from CHS in 2008, and my brother in 2013. I’ve lived in Maplewood since 1995 and the clock tower is just another piece of history that I typically drive past mindlessly, like the parking lot where Ultimate Frisbee was created in the 1960s and the Maplewood Train Station which was built in the mid 19th-century. It’s strange how the extraordinary becomes ordinary with overexposure. The tower itself was built in 1926-1927 and designed by famous architect James Betelle.
Climbing the stairs to the clock tower in mid-October, I could tell when we passed the regularly seen CHS and entered rarely-explored territory. The pristine walls and occasional dropped pen were left behind us as I followed Eddy Prins, Jr. of the CHS maintenance staff up and around another floor. He quickly took the lead as I huffed and puffed my way up to the top of the tower, where Mr. Prins patiently waited to unlock the door for me to enter the clock area.
First impressions… Why is there a shed inside the clock tower?
The tower has four dials, one on each side of the tower. The center of each dial has to be 5’6″ above the floor according to the specifications of the E. Howard Clock Co, who built and installed the clock. So with the floor plan already made, a shed was build to elevate the base of the clock movement to the correct height relative to the dials.
Expecting to see spiderwebs and perhaps a rodent, I was pleasantly surprised by the cleanliness of the tower. Is this the same school that voted to close the school swimming pool, at least temporarily, because it was not maintained to appropriate safety standards?
After a little investigation it became clear that the bulbs to backlight the dials were still working and on a relatively new-looking timer.
Intrigued, I went to take a look at the movement itself. On my way inside the shed I spotted what was supposed to be, according to all of my research, an 80-year-old motor. According to NIDEC, who has since bought out U.S. Electric Motors, the motor was likely purchased in January 1997.
Well, that’s certainly not 80 years old.
The confined space inside the shed make it difficult to take pictures, but above are a few snapshots of the clock movement. To those who haven’t looked inside an antique clock lately, let me tell you that it does not usually look quite like this. What do long-ignored antique clocks look like? Here are a few photos from my collection.
Now for a close-up of some gears on the CHS tower clock.
Is it rusty? Yes. Does it need work? Yes. Is it fixable? I never thought I would say this, but definitely yes.
All the parts are there and seem to be intact. The top of the pendulum is one of the weakest spots on a clock movement, and it seems to be fine.
Not only is the clock in good condition, but it’s also still connected to the bell made by Meneely & Co., commissioned by the school, the E. Howard Clock Company, and the architects Guilbert & Betelle. If the clock were restored it could be set to ring the historic bell on the hour.
I haven’t had this confirmed, but supposedly the clock was restored in 2004. What happened? Why isn’t it running now? If it was restored that recently then it should be easy enough to get it up and running again. In tower clock time 12 years since the last maintenance is like saying it’s been 6 months since your last physical – maybe for some people that’s normal but most of us go without for much longer. Because it has a motor the clock should never have to be wound, and because it’s encased in a shed inside a tower the chance of accidental damage is low.
I defer to the experts when it comes to required maintenance for a tower clock. According to Mr. William R. Kennedy, a clock tower expert, regulation of the pendulum may need to occur as often as weekly. With changes in temperature the 9′ pendulum will increase and decrease in length as the metal expands and contracts, changing the period of the swing of the pendulum minutely. I suspect a weekly time check plus a monthly pendulum length adjustment would be more than sufficient. Also according to Mr. Kennedy, the clock needs to be cleaned regularly. I interpret this to mean dusted and oiled monthly. In short, it would require weekly checks by someone moderately acquainted with the clock and monthly maintenance by someone intimately acquainted with it.
Now the pressing question – what would it take to get this clock to run at all? First, an assessment of the motor unattached to the clock, and a determination if a new motor is necessary. The clock itself would need to be taken apart slowly and each piece would need to be cleaned and lubricated as necessary. This would require a specialist on tower clocks or someone with a lot of time on their hands. The clock would then need to be put back together. Some of this would require physical labor, such as to detach the pendulum and the escapement so that the pendulum does not fall and injure anyone.
Why 1927? In that year Columbia High School hired a noted architectural firm to install an organ and a clock tower equipped with bell and clock. Below are some of the correspondence between W. R. Cadmus of the New York Office of the E. Howard Clock Company sent to his associates asking them for expected delivery dates and for them to answer some questions about construction. Who was W. R. Cadmus’ contact at CHS, and how was this enterprise paid for? In 11 short years this tower and clock will be 100 years old.
What do you think? Get the clock up and running? Leave it locked away, slowly dying a rusty death? Or trash it and forget that there ever was a clock locked away in that tower? Or maybe a compromise – remove it from the tower but keep it on display in the school for historical reasons? I think you know my answer. I’m a clock lover, and a lover of history. This is a rare tower clock in acceptable condition and it should be restored to a place of pride for CHS graduates and members of the community.
I await your thoughts and opinions,
P.S. And a big Thank You to Principal Elizabeth Aaron who allowed and encouraged my visit, and to Mr. Prins for enthusiastically escorting me around the tower.
Sources and other websites I found useful: