Our clock is working again.
For a year and a half, the hands stood still as our brownstone restoration project continued. With the project nearing completion and the scaffolding removed, the clockworks were set in motion again last week. As part of the restoration project, the historic clock was fully restored last year. The following article, republished from the winter issue of FAPC's magazine The VOICE, tells the story.
The clock in the south tower of Fifth Avenue Presbyterian Church is a remarkable combination of delicacy and brute strength.
When the clock tower is open again for tours, you can see the 19th-century clockworks for yourself. A 14-foot pendulum rocks in steady rhythm, each swing precisely counting two seconds from point A to point B. The rotations of the pendulum lock, then unlock, the escapement, the mechanism that measures beats and controls the movement of the clock’s hands.
From the outside, the clock is massive, each face measuring eight feet in diameter. But the clockworks themselves fit inside what looks like a small cedar toolshed, big enough for maybe four persons at a time. On an elegant, cast iron base sit the polished brass and steel gears, gently pulsing with each tick of the pendulum. On one side, a handsome clock face shows the time.
Three heavy drive shafts stretch all the way from the clockworks to the tower walls, about 11 feet away. (The FAPC clock has only three faces outside, not four. The rise of the Sanctuary rooftop would block the view of the clock on the tower’s north side, so no face appears there.) These shafts control the hour and minute hands outside. They must be synchronized with the clockworks and have enough power to move the hands 60 times around, hour after hour, in all kinds of weather.
This is where brute strength comes in.
The Box of Rocks
“The hands have to contend with wind resistance, and occasional snow and ice,” says David Graf, an expert in the design and repair of historic tower clocks, and the man in charge of caring for ours during the recent brownstone restoration. “You need extra weight and extra power to do this.”
You may have heard about the box of rocks. It’s up in the tower, too, suspended from a pulley, gradually descending with each tick of the pendulum to a chamber below. Its gravitational pull gives the drive shafts the power they need to turn the hands of the clock.
The box takes seven days to make its descent. “Winding” the clock (which our facilities staff does once a week) means hoisting the box back up to its starting point.
Despite their inartful appearance, the rocks are precisely weighted to exert just the right amount of pressure on the shafts. As FAPC’s facilities director, Derek Maddalena, says, “Take one rock away, and the clock would run slow.”
This mechanized system (no electricity needed) has worked exceptionally well for more than 140 years. But about a year ago, Derek noticed the clock was no longer keeping good time and “didn’t sound right.” He knew we would be taking the clock out of operation once the scaffolding went up and the brownstone restoration began. So he contacted Graf about inspecting the clockworks and repairing them if necessary.
Black Peanut Butter
It was Graf’s second time tending to our clock. During the Crossroads campaign more than a decade ago, he made some repairs to the escapement, and cleaned and overhauled the entire mechanism. The clockworks were largely disassembled, wrapped and sealed for protection as renovation projects proceeded.
On his return trip, Graf found that oil and dust had collected in the teeth of the gears. “It had thickened into a black, peanut butter consistency,” he says. “It had gotten so dirty that it was difficult to run with any reliability.”
This time, Graf disassembled the clockworks and took them to his workshop in Maine. There, Graf and his assistant, Judith Andrews, ultrasonically cleaned the parts (about 50 in all). Then they gently re-polished the steel and refinished the brass with a gold-tinted lacquer so that everything shines as it did in 1875.
In October, Graf and Andrews returned to New York to reassemble the clockworks and ensure that the clock was once again keeping good time.
Unique and Quite Rare
Graf—who is largely self-taught in the history and restoration of tower clocks—admires the craftsmanship of E. Howard and Co., the Boston-based manufacturer that built and installed the clock at FAPC.
During more than a century in operation, E. Howard was one of the two largest manufacturers of tower clocks in the U.S. When electric-powered clocks came on the market in the early 20th century, E. Howard continued to make its clocks the old-fashioned way. The company eventually closed in the 1950s.
“These old tower clocks came in a range of sizes, with the number 2 being the most common,” Graf says. “The number 4 was the largest, and there are fewer than 10 of those still in operation. Yours is a number 3—a number 3, double three-legged gravity escapement, time only, with a 14-foot pendulum, to be precise. And there are notmany of them, either.”
“Yes, your clock is unique and quite rare,” says Chris DeSantis, author of Clocks of New York: An Illustrated History (2006). “As far as hand-wound Howard clocks go, there are only two in the city—yours, and likely the greatest of all the Howards ever built, which sits in the tower of the former Clock Tower Building at 346 Broadway.”
DeSantis adds that the Clock Tower Building, including the Howard clock, are under threat of demolition—which makes the preservation of FAPC’s clock even more important to New York City’s architectural heritage.
That’s something to keep in mind the next time you glance up to check the time. Our old clock, like time itself, is precious.
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