Time has not dimmed the glory of the state's tower and street clocks

WAY BACK WHEN

Back story

April 22, 2006|By FREDERICK N. RASMUSSEN | FREDERICK N. RASMUSSEN,SUN REPORTER

"Time nor tide tarrieth no man." Robert Greene, Disputations, 1592 When Mike Eder retired in 1984 from Sparrows Point High School, where he had been principal for 15 years, he was looking for something interesting to do, now that he had all the time in the world.

"Actually, when I retired, I didn't want to retire from something but to something," the Bel Air resident recalled the other day.

Eder became interested in clocks as a child when he visited his grandmother's home.

"I remember going to my grandmother's house, and she had a mantel clock that chimed the hour and quarter-hour with a Westminster chime," Eder said.

"Eventually, I was able to buy one for myself, and later I filled my house with clocks I couldn't keep running. So, in 1985, I joined the Baltimore Chapter 11 of the National Association of Watch and Clock Collectors and now edit their newsletter," he said.

What got Eder hooked on tower clocks was attending a lecture on the subject at a meeting of the association's Baltimore chapter.

"And that fit in well with my other hobby, photography," he said.

The lecture and slide show Eder attended was the work of two chapter members, Joe Schuler and Don Kobi, who had gathered historical information on the towers and their clocks in 1977.

"What I'm planning to do now is fill in with new research and add and document other tower clocks and street clocks in Maryland. While the primary concentration remains Baltimore, any clock in the state is fair game," Eder said.

In the nearly 30 years since those clock scholars prowled city streets, some have vanished, including the landmark Tower Building in the 200 block of E. Baltimore St., which was designed by Otto Simonson. When it opened in 1912, it was headquarters for the Maryland Casualty Co., and was later purchased in the 1920s by William Randolph Hearst to house his Baltimore newspapers.

The building with its distinctive green copper-clad roof and four-sided Seth Thomas clock, was for decades a part of the "collective downtown memory," said Walter G. Schamu, a Baltimore architect and historian, in a 1998 article in The Sun.

Its Seth Thomas clocks, which have been described by clock historians as having great significance, had 3/8-inch-thick double-frosted glass dials that measured 17 feet in diameter and recorded the passing hours with 10-foot hands and could be seen from all over town.

After the Manekin Corp. demolished the building for a parking lot in 1987, company officials promised the clocks would be spared and someday incorporated into a new building. They were reportedly stored for years in the basement of the Maryland Casualty Building on 40th Street.

"I knew that it was dismantled and it sat there on 40th Street for a number of years until one day someone asked, `What's this pile of junk?' and disposed of it," Eder said.

If anyone thinks this is a niche hobby, just look around: The skyline of the city is punctuated by tower clocks that have earned the respect and admiration of enthusiasts.

They can be found in church steeples, firehouses, railroad stations, hospitals, universities, bank and commercial buildings, and courthouses, including Baltimore's City Hall.

"Just look up in the air, and you can see them," suggests Fred Crow, fellow club member who with his friend, Bill Miller, keeps all of the clocks at the Baltimore & Ohio Railroad Museum ticking. "And they take you back in history."

While the oldest tower clock in the area is the No. 6 Firehouse at Gay and Ensor streets, whose clock dates to 1853, honors for the largest in the city goes to the Bromo Seltzer Tower clock on Lombard Street, with its 25-foot-diameter face surrounded by letters spelling out "Bromo Seltzer." Its minute hand weighs 175 pounds, hour hand 125 pounds, and pendulum tips the scales at 600 pounds.

About half of the tower clocks in the city have been electrified, beginning in the 1940s, while others, like the one at Mount Royal Station, now the Maryland Institute College of Art, soldier on. MICA's clock has its original mechanism, installed in the 1890s by E. Howard Co., the Boston clockmaker.

Its illuminated dial measures 12 feet in diameter, while its minute hand is 6 feet long and hour hand measures 4 1/2 feet. Until 1968, reports Eder, the clock was hand-wound using a crank that lifted a 400-pound weight. Today, that job is done by an electric motor.

The station clock is a favorite of Eder and his friends.

"I'm getting a little old to be climbing around clock towers; I'm 76," Eder said. "We had to climb four flights of wooden stairs with no railing. And given my balance problems, it was a little precarious."

What can hold back the hands of time?

With the station clock, Eder reports that winter weather and birds can be a problem.

"Ice can slow a clock, and birds sitting on the hands at a quarter-hour can knock it off time," he said.

George Hudson, a clock fan, praises Eder's work.

"He's the expert, and his list is quite complete. His work has become part of the Spot-A-Clock Program, which is nationwide, and sponsored by the National Association of Watch and Clock Collectors whose headquarters are in Columbia, Pa.," Hudson, a retired mechanical engineer and technical marketer, said yesterday.

fred.rasmussen@baltsun.com

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