Day late and an hour short, Bromo clock catches up

April 05, 1994|By Mike Klingaman | Mike Klingaman,Sun Staff Writer

William Frank knows the routine: Spring forward, fall back. And make no sudden movements while servicing a clock 300 feet off the ground.

Mr. Frank, a city building repairman, adjusted the massive, four-faced timepiece atop the 15-story Bromo Seltzer Tower yesterday morning.

It wasn't as easy as changing his watch: An hour hand on the famous Baltimore landmark weighs 145 pounds.

But Mr. Frank didn't totter on a ledge or hang from the minute hand in midair like some star of a silent film.

Actually, he never left the building.

At 8 a.m., he climbed to the top of the faded brick tower and unlocked the ramshackle door to the clock room, which looks like a set for the Charlie Chaplin film "Modern Times."

The center of the chamber is filled with gears and pulleys that breathe life into the huge lead-glass dials on each of the four walls of the 83-year-old building.

Mr. Frank plunged an odd-looking key into the center mechanism and cranked for several minutes.

The minute hands, 12 1/2 feet long, leaped ahead, their shadows moving in syncopation on the sun-drenched floor.

How all this looked to rush-hour motorists, Mr. Frank couldn't say. "I wonder if anybody sees the clock moving. If we hear tires screeching while we're up here, we'll know what happened."

Though daylight-saving time began at 2 a.m. Sunday, city officials routinely wait until Monday to correct the Bromo Seltzer timepiece.

The ornate tower, at Eutaw and Lombard streets, is a beacon, especially for visitors to Oriole Park at Camden Yards, two blocks away, and the Inner Harbor.

It certainly gives tourists something to puzzle over.

"People ask, 'What is it?' and 'Why is it?' and 'Can we tour it?' " said Kathleen Hilditch, concierge at the Marriott Hotel, across from the tower.

The answers are: (1) a city office building (2) the legacy of a flamboyant drug magnate and (3) absolutely not.

Constructed in 1911 by Isaac Emerson, a chemist who invented Bromo Seltzer in his West Baltimore pharmacy, the tower -- built of 750,000 bricks -- was a monument to what one scribe called "a fortune built on gas and acid."

Looming over what was then a thriving garment district, the Bromo tower was completed on June 23, a hot, muggy day on which baseball was foremost on Baltimore's mind.

The red-hot Orioles, runners-up in the Eastern League standings, were hosts to first-place Rochester in a doubleheader at Oriole Park.

The Birds swept both games.

Then the city's tallest structure, the tower was capped with a four-faced Seth Thomas clock with the letters B-R-O-M-O S-E-L-T-Z-E-R emblazoned on each 6-ton dial.

Mr. Emerson wasn't finished. Atop the clock, he placed a revolving steel replica of the Bromo bottle, 51 feet tall and decked out with lights. The Sun reported that these "letters of electric fire" were visible at night from piers on the Eastern Shore.

The bottle created headaches of its own and was scrapped in 1936 for safety reasons.

The tower, purchased by the city in 1968, is one of the few remaining legacies to Mr. Emerson. The opulent hotel he built here is long since gone, as is a baseball field he gave to the University of North Carolina, his alma mater.

The Bromo clock itself fell into disrepair until, 20 years ago, its weights-and-pendulum were replaced with an electric motor that now drives the gears. The "artificial heart" re-invigorated the timepiece, which has seldom faltered since.

But when the time is wrong, Mr. Frank gets an earful.

"If it's 5 minutes slow or fast, people call City Hall, and City Hall calls me," he said.

Sometimes citizens call Jane V. Davis, a city worker whose office is in the Bromo building, also known as the Baltimore Arts Tower.

"We get calls from employers who say, 'Please fix your clock. Our workers use it and they're not getting to work on time,' " said Ms. Davis.

Mr. Frank has serviced the clock for a decade, though never on Opening Day. Yesterday, he proclaimed the old ticker as fit as the Orioles' Big Ben (McDonald). Mr. Frank also scaled ladders and catwalks to inspect the mechanism and to drench each of the 43 original gears with lubricant -- an oily caress he repeats monthly.

Never mind the grease, grime and pigeon droppings, he says. The cavernous clock room, with its 25-foot ceiling, is a favorite haunt, especially in the morning with light streaming through the 24-foot-wide dials, accenting the Roman numerals and creating a near-mystical ambience.

"I love it when the sun beats down, and you can see the shadows of the hands through the glass," said Mr. Frank, 35. "I like working up here, and caring for this thing. It runs better than some clocks today.

"In a way, I guess I'm preserving history. That's important."

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