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

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

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?

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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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Ranging from a modest 10 feet to a striking 20 feet tall, post or “street” clocks typically come in black or green cast aluminum. They are often decorated with filigree, scrolling, or gold-tooling, and usually have the town name spelled out in decorative letters. Optional chimes play anything from holiday music to the high school’s fight song. According to Jeannie Porter of the Verdin Co., which manufactures bells and clocks, when the town of Ramapo, N.Y., recently ordered seven clocks from her company, they had them programmed to play a greeting from the mayor during the morning and evening rush hours.

“Most places, as they begin to think of rejuvenation, try to think of some kind of ‘front door’ to the community,” says James Hartling, a planner with Urban Partners, a Philadelphia-based firm. The clocks tend to be installed in important places: in front of a significant public building, or at a prime intersection or traffic circle. But private businesses sometimes buy their own. Traditionally a status symbol anchored in front of jewelry shops, their appeal has now spread to golf clubs, funeral homes, universities, and shopping centers looking to present a “ye olde” feel. The clocks cost anywhere from $8,000 to $10,000 for a small, two-faced model to as much as $60,000 or more for a specially commissioned piece. Most popular are the four-faced models in the $30,000 range.

Ms. Porter estimates that only 30 to 40 percent of street clocks around the country are truly vintage. Since their reemergence, sales have increased on average 10 percent annually – with hundreds installed each year, say clockmakers. Thanks to the public funding, the trend shows no sign of easing off. Despite economic woes, “Cities and towns are still renovating,” says Porter. Last year, her company sold 100 of the clocks to towns in Oklahoma as part of the state’s centennial celebration. “You can’t go 10 miles in the state without seeing a Verdin clock,” she says.

Town clocks are most popular in New Jersey, says Brandie Morris of Clockmaker Electric Time Co. in Medfield, Mass., while Nevada and Wyoming may have only a few each. Much of the difference comes from a combination of regional taste, budget, and the amount of land available – for more costly clock towers – and the age and condition of commercial centers. An upscale streetscape brings in money, say city planners, by staving off the impression of blight creep and by increasing business traffic and upping property values.

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Many such projects have taken place in first-ring suburbs of Philadelphia, in Montgomery County, Pa. In Keswick Village, Pa., home values jumped 15 percent in the blocks immediately surrounding the clock-anchored improvements the year after the new development was done, according to Mr. Hartling.

Down the road, in Fort Washington, Pa., neighbors installed a clock 10 years ago next to a prominent intersection, an opening salvo in their battle to take back a community that had become, in essence, an off-ramp of the Pennsylvania Turnpike. “The clock was something we could point to and say ‘we’re really a group that has some vision,’ ” recalls Peter Blood, of Rescape, a local civic group. They parlayed the clock’s visibility into grants that got the attention of state transportation officials.

Ultimately, they won money for a new train station, a stone-sided bridge project, antique-looking traffic signals, and brick-like crosswalks, attracting a five-star restaurant to boot. If the colonial feel of the project – overlaid, as it is, on a wide-open industrial park/car wash/power station topography – has people scratching their heads, Mr. Blood feels it has managed at least to keep the big box stores at bay. In the process, he says, “The symbol of Fort Washington has become the clock.”

Though a me-too mentality drives many of the purchases, the out-of-a-catalog feel often fades as a community’s clock becomes imbued with its own meaning and personality, creating a meeting place, a symbol of pride, a landmark. Shirley Mosk, 40 years a resident of Keswick Village, says the clock, located on a tiny roundabout surrounded by dozens of mom-and-pop businesses, is just one more reason she loves her hometown. “It’s different. It adds something special,” she says.

Mr. Fleming, though, would like to see more creativity in the mix. Exhibit A: The clock he was commissioned to design a decade ago for the main intersection in the Philadelphia suburb of Wayne. A takeoff on the Glockenspiel of Europe, his clock features a miniature trolley, Conestoga wagon, and an old car, reminiscent of transportation modes used by residents past. The replicas emerge from the clock and rotate on the quarter-hour for this Main Line town, where colorful banners, awnings, and tony shops share the festive feel. A restaurant owner picked up the $60,000-plus tab.

Time passes in affluent Wayne, too, however. The one-time bank building that later became the restaurant with the clock-loving owner is now a financial services company. The Gap store across the street is long gone. And even the clock is a few minutes off. But mother and proud resident Allison Kelley nevertheless uses the clock to time her arrival at the preschool across the street to pick up her children. “Right now it’s a little slow,” she explains, as if dismissing the imperfection of a familiar friend. “But it’s OK. I love it. I love the clock.”

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