Roland W. Fontz

Clockmaker who long maintained Bromo Seltzer, City Hall dome clocks also built organs at several area churches

January 15, 2009|By Frederick N. Rasmussen | Frederick N. Rasmussen,fred.rasmussen@baltsun.com

Rowland W. Fontz, a master Baltimore clockmaker who kept the Bromo Seltzer and City Hall dome clocks ticking for decades, died Saturday of pneumonia and complications of Parkinson's disease at Baltimore Washington Medical Center. The Pasadena resident was 82.

Mr. Fontz, who was born and raised in a Montgomery Street rowhouse, graduated in 1944 from Southern High School, where he had studied music.

During the war years, he ushered at the old McHenry Theater in Federal Hill, and later played the organ at the now-demolished Century Theater.

FOR THE RECORD - The headline on an obituary in yesterday's editions misspelled the first name of Rowland W. Fotz.
The Baltimore Sun regrets the error.

After completing an apprenticeship in pipe organ-building in Vermont, Mr. Fontz returned to Baltimore and established the Fontz Organ Co. in 1955.

Examples of his work can be found at Douglas Memorial Community Church, St. Paul Lutheran Church in Glen Burnie, St. Paul Lutheran Church in Aberdeen and St. Jane Frances de Chantal Roman Catholic Church in Pasadena.

While Mr. Fontz enjoyed building and repairing organs, he also became a talented clockmaker in the 1950s and in the ensuing years earned two well-deserved nicknames: "The Clock Man" and "Father Time."

Until the landmark Tower Building in the 200 block of E. Baltimore St. with its four-sided Seth Thomas clock with 10-foot-long hands was lamentably demolished in 1986, Mr. Fontz cared for the clock that was the city's second-largest after the Bromo Seltzer Tower.

After the clock had been inactive for a number of months in 1970, Mr. Fontz showed up with his black bag of tools and got it running again for a $50 fee. He remained its caretaker until the building's end.

He also persuaded the building's owners that he be allowed to install a musical system in the building over which he would play patriotic songs on Memorial Day and the Fourth of July.

Mr. Fontz' lifelong love affair with the 288-foot-high Bromo Seltzer building clock at Lombard and Eutaw streets began in his childhood.

From the bedroom of his Federal Hill home as he lay in bed while repeating his evening prayers, he would look across the city toward the building that in those days was crowned by an illuminated 51-foot-high blue bottle of the famous headache remedy. This was removed in 1936 for structural reasons.

"I thought it was something like the stars in heaven," he told a City Paper reporter in a 2002 interview.

He became keeper of the clock that has become nationally known because of TV viewers watching broadcasts of Orioles games from nearby Camden Yards.

Also a Seth Thomas product, the clock's four translucent faces, measuring 24 feet in diameter and ringed with the words BROMO SELTZER, included a ticking minute hand more than 12 feet long. It was installed when the building was erected in 1911.

Oddly enough, Mr. Fontz, who referred to the clock as his "pet," kept its mechanism going with the aid of a "screwdriver, paint brushes, solvent, WD-40 lubricant," according to a 2001 story in The Sun.

"It's not really complicated," Mr. Fontz said in the City Paper interview. "It's just really challenging because of the precision. Other than that, it's a very simple mechanism."

William McAllen, a Baltimore photographer, and Sarah Achenbach, a Rodgers Forge writer, featured Mr. Fontz on the cover of their recently published book, Spirit of Place: Baltimore's Favorite Spaces.

"The most difficult job was protecting the clocks' painted surfaces. The hands are eight-foot laminated wood surfaces, and they'll bend when covered with ice and snow," he told the authors in an interview that accompanies his photograph in the book.

"I would have to take out certain sections of glass and reach through the moving dial to paint the hands or clear off ice," he said.

Mr. Fontz said that while it was a "risky job," he was never bothered by a fear of heights, and he enjoyed watching passers-by getting a "kick" out of seeing him "out on the clock."

He added, "The top of the tower has the best views of all the Baltimore landmarks - City Hall, St. James Church, everything," and while he wasn't a baseball fan, he had the best skybox seat in town when he occasionally stole a glance at an Orioles game from his airy perch.

"Keeping the Bromo Seltzer clock running was an absolute passion for him," said a daughter, Diane L. Shoe of Pasadena.

Mr. Fontz, who gave up working on the clock in 2006 after he began battling Parkinson's disease, still maintained an office on the building's 15th floor.

In his office workshop, Mr. Fontz worked for years on a project that never came to fruition. He had designed a 25-story tower, commemorating the British attack at Fort McHenry in 1814, that was to be installed in the Inner Harbor and from which "The Star-Spangled Banner" would boom daily across harbor waters.

"He's going to be cremated, and I wish it were possible to put his ashes up there with the clock," Mrs. Shoe said.

Mr. Fontz was a member of Lee Street Memorial Baptist Church, at 109 Warren Ave. in Federal Hill, where a memorial service will be held at 1 p.m. Saturday.

Also surviving are another daughter, Denise A. Bouyelas of Glen Burnie; a grandson; and two great-grandchildren. A marriage to the former Thelma Thomas ended in divorce.

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