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Making yesterday’s clock towers timepieces of tomorrow

Courtesy of the Minnesota Historical Society
City Hall in 1904.

In today’s world of ubiquitous tech, a clock tower stands anachronistic — a relic of an age when time was a gilded commodity kept close in pocket watches. Even today, a public clock occasionally proves its worth, perhaps in a glance while waiting for a bus or on the way to a meeting. Another amusing pastime: spotting old and neglected clocks, either halted and forgotten, or wildly off. And as they say, even a stopped clock is right twice a day.

Next time you pass through the east end of downtown Minneapolis, raise your gaze to the clock atop the tower of City Hall, for it's undergoing a transformation. The south-facing face is gone, withdrawn from the public eye for refurbishment. One by one, the others will follow, until the clock has a brand new public visage.

“We had an analysis done of the clock face, and as you can imagine, it’s over 125 years old,” Erin Delaney, the director of the city/county Municipal Building Commission, told me last week. “There were some structural concerns. We’ve been tracking and assessing the clock face for several years, determining the next plan on how best to do this. Our goal is to replace the clock face for another 125 years.”

There’s no particular hurry, as City Hall itself took almost 20 years to complete. The building is a Richardsonian Romanesque government fortress erected from stones hewn from the granite strata of Ortonville, Minnesota, its clock-and-bell-boasting tower its peak accomplishment.

Back when plans for the building were hatched, the relationship between time and the city was undergoing a radical change. It wasn’t until 1883 that a long debate was settled, as a group called the General Time Commission solidified the national system of “railway time,” complete with our modern time zones. Before then, and likely for some time after, individual cities retained their own “local times,” each with an idiosyncratic noon. One can only imagine the kind of presence a clock tower impressed in those days, setting paces as it cast shadows onto the city below.

When the Minneapolis clock tower opened to the public in 1906, the view from the observation deck, 345 feet over the city, must have bewildered. At the time, Minneapolis was a bastion of modernity, a shining city on a hill combining Greek idealism with the cruel appropriations from the Dakota. When the tower opened to the public, dusty shacks still lurked in riverfront alleys. The streets below were full of horse manure, men at work, and a thousand signs advertising every possible frontier ware. The view north from the tower offered an industrial dystopia or paradise, depending on your perspective. 

Courtesy of the Minnesota Historical Society
The other side of the clock face.

In downtown St. Paul, the Landmark Center clock tower offers a similar, if less prominent, sight. It towers over Rice Park, and these days, its short sightlines keep it hidden from most views. According to Amy Mino, the director of Minnesota Landmarks, which oversees the building, the clock itself is not original; it's a late addition from the 1970s remodel. It's not an old mechanical clock, but more of a one-piece clock tower kit. Over time, the strong winds buffeting the tower loosen the gears that control the hands, and Ramsey County periodically sends a worker to recalibrate the minute hand. My favorite St. Paul clock tower rises over Saint Agnes Catholic Church 205 feet over Frogtown, faces glowing in the night the exact shade of green as “indiglo” watches from my youth. Best viewed from the north atop the bridges that arch over the tracks, to me the church’s Baroque tower conjures secret ghosts.

But as it turns out, the actual ghosts are back in Minneapolis, where the ghost of John Moshik, the last man legally hanged in Minnesota, is said to haunt the building. (When he was tried in a City Hall chamber in 1898, the clock and its tower likely didn’t yet exist, but if I were a ghost that’s where I’d be.) City Hall in general brims with similar stories, partly a result of its murky genesis. In the indispensable "AIA Guide to the Twin Cities," Larry Millett writes that the building was “constructed in a treacherous swamp of politics, controversy, and debt.” The records of those political machinations might even be housed in the tower itself, where an old archive lurks beneath the bells.

Adding to the City Hall controversy, both Millett and Wikipedia make the dubious claim that “some say the clock is the world’s largest.” If this were ever true, it was only for a moment. For example, the clock face of Zurich’s Church of St. Peter is a full 4 feet larger and dates to the 13th century, when time was still a vague idea. Meanwhile, the tower clock atop the Metropolitan Life Insurance building on Manhattan’s Union Square exceeds Minneapolis’ diameter by 3 feet. It was erected in 1909, just a few years after Minneapolis’ clock.

(Today, the world’s largest public clock is in Mecca; its face (over 140 feet in diameter) looms down on the square outside the Masjid al Haram mosque. Each year the site teems with a million pilgrims, and at least they know what time it is.)

MinnPost photo by Bill Lindeke
The clock tower at dusk.

The big change in Minneapolis is that the clock keepers are removing the neon. The neon itself was added in 1949, during the ascendancy of that electric medium. But like the other neon signs around the skyline, keeping giant tubes of gas glowing is expensive, and after a careful analysis of the tower, clock and bells both, the city decided to remove the gaudy green and red outlines. I’ll miss its theatrics, but Erin Delnaey assured me that the back-lit clock face is “the accurate historic look.”

“Right now we’re working on masonry work, both interior and exterior,” Delaney explained. “All four faces of will be replaced, and this is the most efficient way. We will be casting aluminum pieces, and there’s a general contractor for this project in Brooklyn Park that has contracted with a clock company and foundry in Missouri. There are 12 pieces that have to be cast for each face, a total of 48 parts.”

The old clock faces date to 1949, when the neon was added after the original plate glass faces began cracking. They were replaced with porcelain-coated steel, but the new ones will be again transparent. The hands themselves will remain, after a brief sabbatical to be “reweighed and rebalanced,” and by this time next year the old clock will turn a new face to the city: backlit, black-and-white, faintly glowing in the night sky. Years ago I remember seeing the clock telling different times to different directions, faces out of sync. But as of 2009, the clock has been made accurate, governed electronically with a cellular connection.

Soon the old hands will return to sweeping circles around fresh faces. Though the tower has been swallowed by the skyline, blotted particularly by the monolithic black behind of the new stadium, in certain glimpses you can still see the relic telling time. In fact, you can set your watch by it.

Correction: An earlier version of this article misspelled Erin Delaney's name.

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Comments (1)

It's good to know

.. that my routine glance up from the 3rd Av - Government Center skyway is only temporarily unavailable. The judges like us to be on time, and looking at a cell phone at that crowded location is hazardous. My wrist watch went into storage about two decades ago, and might actually still be keeping time, if I can remember where I put it !!