Restorer keeps unusual collection of big timepieces

Jacques Kelly

November 04, 1991|By Jacques Kelly

The house with 75 electric fans, five or six pipe organs and a one-ton clock now has a new decoration -- a smoke-breathing, 475-pound iron dragon whose tail strikes the hour.

Leave it to Durward R. Center, the 42-year-old Charles Village resident who says modestly, "I'm good at fixing things."

Center is the maestro of a bewildering collection of 19th century mechanical musical instruments.

By profession, he restores machines for collectors who want walnut-cased player pipe organs for their parlors.

He also restores automatic player pipe organs.

Center has another passion.

He is fascinated by the big clocks usually found on railroad stations and on church steeples. One of these huge tickers -- the dial is 5 1/2 feet across -- keeps perfect time in his third-floor window. It's clearly visible from the street and has already achieved the status of a neighborhood landmark.

Such a clock demanded a loud, clear bell, one that could be heard by residents of the adjoining Victorian rowhouses.

"The dragon began as a wall bracket to hold a bell that would work off the clock," Center said.

This past weekend, a pair of blacksmith-sculptors installed a huge iron dragon on the third-floor wall outside Center's house. The winged reptile, a remarkable piece of metalwork, holds a resonant bronze bell that will also strike the hours to a second clock, an enormous Seth Thomas-works timepiece that's to be inserted in another third-floor window.

Two years ago, Center installed his first illuminated clock on the side of his home that faces the 2100 block of St. Paul St. His dragon, which should be running sometime next spring, overlooks the first block of E. 21st St. as will the second clock.

"Now I've run out of space to put the clocks," he said.

Center's clocks are powered by gravity. Some 240 pounds of weights keep one clock going. (The weights are held on pulleys and drop down his stairwell.) The floor has been cut out so the long pendulum swings through his bedroom ceiling.

Here is a man clearly at home with flywheels, cams, gear shafts, springs and escapements. Center has 75 models of early electric fans, including one made in 1891 by Ries and Scott of Baltimore.

At a suggestion that this collection seems a little uncoventional, Center smilles and says, "You are right."

The installation of the dragon attracted a small crowd of people on a cool November afternoon. When it was unveiled, it got immediate rave reviews.

"It's one bad banana," said a man, looking up at the winged creature.

The dragon was created by Laurel sculptor Paul West, who specializes in architectural iron work. He trades under the name Ironique. Another blacksmith-sculptor, Lee Badger, helped to bolt the dragon to the brick sidewall of Center's house.

"I looked at dozens of pictures of dragons. I wanted it to be Victorian and Medieval," West said.

The dragon, which has a wing span of eight feet, is covered with 400 hand-made metal scales. It has a properly forked, copper tongue. Its horns are wrought iron. Its metal talons are painted in gold. A small copper hose into the dragons mouth allows it to emit smoke, but this aspect of the creature's personality has yet to be tested.

So why does Center take on these things? "I guess I always like to have a project," he said.

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