The big time in Annapolis

Landmark: Once a center of civic life in Maryland's capital, the town clock remains a prominent feature.

August 17, 2004|By Jamie Stiehm | Jamie Stiehm,SUN STAFF

Matthew Latrick navigated the rickety floorboards of the clock tower at St. Anne's Episcopal Church in Annapolis, perching under dial windows to see the capital city from various vantage points.

From the southeast window, Latrick peered down at Main Street leading to City Dock and the shimmering waters of the Chesapeake Bay.

"It really gave you a great perspective of what a small town Annapolis is and how long ago the city was built - with the 1704 kind of feel," Latrick said later.

Latrick, a college intern with the city, has spent the summer documenting the history of the town clock, which has provided the time for generations of Annapolitans. Despite its prominence, it's a little-known fact that the clock housed in the familiar Episcopal church steeple in Church Circle belongs to the city.

Latrick's sleuthing revealed enough to write a short history of the clock but did not solve a lingering mystery: What happened to the post-Civil War clock that disappeared after being replaced in the 1920s?

Still, Annapolis officials are betting the clock's rich story is a selling point. So the city is preparing to market small replicas of the current Seth Thomas clock, priced at less than $100, to tourists and residents.

Jan Hardesty, a spokeswoman for Mayor Ellen O. Moyer, said Latrick's research would be the basis of a short history of the city clock that will accompany each replica.

Moyer, who came to observe the clock climb on a recent day, said the clock sales will help Annapolis raise money for its international sister cities program.

According to Latrick, the first known place of worship on Church Circle, just blocks from the State House, was finished in 1704. But records on the first town clock indicate that it was installed much later, in 1866, when the third church on the site was built (fire destroyed the second church in 1858).

After the Civil War ended, the first city-operated clock and bells made it easy for residents to see and hear the time of day, Latrick said. It was removed to make way for the current Connecticut-made clock.

The 1927-vintage civic clock with its Roman numerals is not such a dominant presence in everyday lives anymore. Nor does its time rule in the age of global Greenwich Mean Time.

As he read through old city files and documents, Latrick said he came to see the old town clock as an equalizer in society where few could afford to own watches.

"It didn't matter if a banker or farmer glanced up to any of the four faces of the clock," said Latrick, 20, a Pasadena resident who is studying at North Carolina State University. "Each had an equal claim. The people of the city, then and now, own the clock."

Until 1883, whatever the St. Anne's clock said was the official time of Annapolis. Then railroad companies urged towns to synchronize their clocks.

"You don't think of providing the time as a city service, but that's what it was," Hardesty said after ascending the tower alongside Latrick and another summer intern, Gretta Walters, 21.

A handsome public clock once spoke well of a city's industriousness to visitors, Hardesty said. "Clocks became symbols of economic prosperity," she said.

Charles Roeser, a tower clock-restoration expert in Lockport, N.Y., who visited Annapolis recently to inspect the Seth Thomas clock, said there was nothing odd about having a civic utility in a church steeple.

"The separation of church and state is [now] more like a political thing," he said. "It made good common sense for a village or town to maintain the clock by written agreement."

Roeser estimated that the Seth Thomas clock, designed by the pre-eminent East Coast clock company of the time, cost $700 to $900 in the 1920s. He added that it was built to last for a century - which means the sturdy piece of Yankee factory work is approaching old age.

Seeing the inner workings of the clock was the first order of business during the recent ascent. Hardesty, Latrick and Walters watched as the clock, a whirring factory object that seemed to be in fine condition, furiously operated its ropes and pulleys to announce the time - Westminster chimes and all - as 4 p.m. on all four faces in one deft movement.

But signs of the earlier clock were scant. Only a massive Meneely-made bell, forged in late 1865, remained as a silent witness to that era. It was silenced many years ago, Hardesty said, judged too loud for modern neighbors and passers-by.

Latrick said he didn't mind not finding more trace evidence of the vanished city clock from the 1860s.

"It was still worth it, to see it running," Latrick said. "And you can't beat the views."

Latrick and Hardesty said they took away a clue from the tower: a hunch that the 1920s Westminster chimes they spied were the reason the city bought a brand-new clock at that time - seeking one that would work with the chimes.

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