High above Baltimore, clock repaired on Bromo Tower

Workers relieved after huge, heavy hands are lifted into place

April 07, 2010|By Mary Carole McCauley | mary.mccauley@baltsun.com

The hands of time really did stand still Tuesday at approximately 10:35 a.m.

But that wasn't until after they twisted and clanged in the wind for more than an hour as workers hoisted two huge metal clock hands up the south face of the Bromo Seltzer Tower on an elaborate pulley system.

The four-sided clock soaring nearly 288 feet was built in 1911 and is an indelible part of the Baltimore landscape. Films set in Charm City often include a shot of the brown brick tower that resembles a medieval fortress. The embedded chronometer spells out "Bromo Seltzer" where the numbers usually go - the "B" is in the 10 o'clock position - and has faces that are 24 feet in diameter, or one foot larger than those adorning London's Big Ben.

But for the past three years, just the north, west and east faces have kept the proper time. The south face, which succumbed to a combination of rotting wood and a gunked-up drive shaft, had been stalled since 2007.

Azola & Associates, a local firm specializing in historic renovations, tried to unstick the hands in September 2007.

"It ran for 15 minutes, and then it stopped," said Tony Azola, the company's vice president. "Nobody knew what was wrong with it."

Clearly, more than a patch job was needed, and on March 16, his crew returned to the tower to disassemble the timepiece, diagnose and fix the problem, and put it back in working order. This is the first major repair since the clock stopped running for three months in 1997, when the fix was made while the hands remained firmly attached to the face.

And so, on a gorgeous spring morning, Azola and Charles Whiddon, the project superintendent, stood on an outdoor balcony 15 stories up and struggled to secure first the hour hand and then the minute hand with cables. One story above, Leif Cogswell rode in an open metal basket that swung precipitously in the breeze, about 230 feet above the exceedingly hard ground.

Cogswell, a window washer, played down the danger, saying the basket "is more substantial than the ones I usually work in." He added cheerfully: "It's pretty breezy out here. For some reason, the platform wants to spin."

The clock hands are large and heavy. The hour hand is 9 feet tall and the minute hand 13 feet. Each of the wooden fingers weighs about 200 pounds.

The enterprise brings to mind the iconic image of silent film star Harold Lloyd dangling from a skyscraper clock far above a busy Los Angeles street in "Safety Last" from 1923. As Lloyd kicks in the air, the face slowly pulls loose from its moorings - a scenario that Azola & Associates was determined to avoid.

"We didn't know how heavy the hands were until we took them down on March 16," Azola said. "We lost a little bit of sleep trying to figure it all out."

In addition to ensuring the safety of his crew, Azola also worried that one of those sharply pointed hands might work loose from its cables and plunge toward the ground, endangering onlookers and giving a new meaning to the term "expiring minutes."

So he and his crew spent weeks analyzing everything that could possibly go wrong, down to calculating the amount of slack in the ropes and cables.

"We didn't want to bungee-jump the hands down," said Whiddon, the project superintendent.

The weeks of preparation paid off. The hour hand was tightened into place at 10:15 a.m., and the more cumbersome minute hand was attached 25 minutes later.

Cogswell planned to spend the rest of the day literally up in the air, balancing the weights, touching up a few spots of faded paint and washing the windows.

Then, Joe Wall, the Bromo Tower's facilities manager, expected to synchronize the south face with the other three. Before today's rush hour, the south face was scheduled to resume ticking, and Baltimore could once again claim bragging rights as home of the world's largest, four-faced gravity-driven clock.

So great was Azola's relief that he permitted himself a small pun.

"It all went off like clockwork," he said.

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