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The town clock strikes 'ye olde' spending feel

Even in tough times, towns are snapping up faux-vintage centerpieces to inject energy into timewarn business districts.

By Correspondent / February 2, 2009

KEEPING TRACK: In Sanford, ME, a Large Four Dial Howard Replica Post Clock sits outside of Town Hall.

Courtesy of Electric Time Company, Inc.

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Philadelphia

Philadelphia

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The bank on the corner has changed hands three times. The druggist sold out to CVS last year. The farm down the way is now a subdivision. But at least the old town clock is marking the passage of time, just as it has been doing for the past century.

Or has it?

In a growing number of American places, the town clock is barely as old as the Starbucks and about as unique. In fact, the clock is on its way to becoming the new statue of a Founding Father or heroic military leader – as ubiquitous, nearly, as these flagpole-flanked monuments, a modern urban-planning touchstone. “A clock has become the most recent object being used to say, ‘you are there,’ ” says Charles Guttenplan of Waetzman Planning Group in Bryn Mawr, Pa.

“Vintage” town clocks are one of the most popular fads in public planning, especially in streetscaping projects aimed at spiffing up fraying business districts. It’s not that folks are suddenly afraid of being tardy. After all, wristwatches, cellphones, and even car radios make the town clock superfluous. Today’s clock tells you not that you’re running late, but that you have already arrived – that you’ve come to a place with a bit of tradition, even elegance, in what might otherwise be another boring stretch of roadway. “A clock has become one way of creating a focal point, an identity,” says Mr. Guttenplan, whose projects often include clocks.

Though some vintage town clocks are the real McCoy, most are faux-old. Some are replacements for originals that may have been mangled by the occasional wayward truck, but most of the hundreds that are installed in towns across the US every year are new.

Among the most popular street clocks sold today are those modeled after Seth Thomas and H. Howard classics, which began to fall out of fashion in the 1950s after their heyday a century ago. Their comeback started in the 1980s when public planners took on the challenge of the National Trust for Historic Preservation’s drive to bring a Main Street feel to deteriorating commercial districts. Fueled by grants from all levels of government, often supplemented by private investment, the now-common streetscape comprises miniparks, sleeker signage, and prettified parking. And where a George Washington statue might once have sufficed as focal point, citizens want something new – um, old – to establish that theirs is a place with a history, says Ronald Fleming of the Townscape Institute, a public-planning organization in Cambridge, Mass. The town clock is “a little flourish, a little exclamation point,” he says.

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