Historic Lansing clock finds new life in Manhattan

All wound up and somewhere to go

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A mechanical post sidewalk clock was cutting edge tech in Lansing in 1910. In 2021, it’s a dark visitor from the Victorian era, a cast iron counterweight to the digital blur of New York City.

“It’s sort of weird that downtown Manhattan is now connected to main street Lansing, Michigan,” Tribeca resident Victoria Weil said.

After standing sentinel for 70 years in front of Morgan’s Jewelers on South Washington Avenue, enduring a vulgar neon makeover and languishing for 20 years in a shop in Canada, a 14-foot-tall sidewalk clock from Lansing has been granted a second life in a new park in the heart of Tribeca.

Residents and curious onlookers gathered when the gorgeously restored clock was delivered and installed Dec. 14, capstone to the new Bogardus Plaza at Hudson Street and West Broadway. After workers hook up the power, the clock will light up at night.

It took 12 hours for technician Peter Nunes and a two-man crew to wrestle the beast into place.

Among those present was Marvin Schneider. As the city’s clock master since the late 1970s, Schneider’s job is to look after the few mechanical clocks remaining in New York, repair them as needed and crank them forward and backward for Daylight Savings Time.

“What makes it unusual is that this street clock is going to be completely original,” said Schneider, 81. “Street clocks used to be mechanical and hand wound. Street clocks in the city, and there are not many of them, are all run on electricity. This will be a return to the past, an acknowledgment of the history of clock making and the art of horology.”

The clock was listed for $265.21 in the Seth Thomas Clock Co. order book for May 19, 1910 — about $8,000 today, adjusted for inflation. It was installed that year in front of H.B. Morgan’s Jewelers at 121 S. Washington Ave., next to the present-day Peanut House in Lansing. Around mid-century, the clock lost its Victorian dignity when it was electrified and neon letters reading “Morgan’s Jewelers” were added.

A local horologist, Karl Barathy of Haslett, serviced the clock for Morgan’s until the store went out of business around 1979. Barathy took the clock in lieu of payment when the store went under.

Hugh Sinclair, a clock collector with a shop in Chatham, Ontario, bought the clock at an auction between 2000 and 2010.

Around that time, residents in the vicinity of tiny Bogardus Garden were looking for a centerpiece for a new park, where West Broadway and Hudson Street converge in a “v”-shaped plaza, about four blocks from the World Trade Center.

In 2010, New York’s Transportation  Department blocked off the end segment of Hudson Street to stage equipment for a reconstruction of Chambers Street. Volunteers who tended the ivy patch and London plane trees in the little triangle proposed that the city keep the last block of Hudson Street closed to traffic and make it a permanent plaza.

The idea dovetailed with New York’s master plan calling for more places where residents could sit and enjoy the city. The nonprofit Friends of Bogardus Plaza got a $2 million grant from the New York’s plaza program and raised $200,000 of its own to qualify for the grant. The plaza cost over $4 million, of which about $500,000 came from private donations. Among the plaza’s amenities are large, egg-shaped sculptures that recall the butter and egg merchants who worked the area in the 19th century.

Weil, president of the Friends of Bogardus Plaza, thought a clock would make a fine capstone to the project. The park’s namesake, James Bogardus, was a clockmaker and inventor as well as the father of cast-iron architecture. Residents fondly remembered a grand old clock on the façade of 16 Hudson, at the north end of the plaza.

Jeremy Woodoff, a horologist who works in the historic preservation office of the city’s Department of Design and Construction, urged Weil to buy an antique clock rather than a reproduction.

There aren’t many historic clock restorers around, so it didn’t take long for Woodoff and the Friends to find Sinclair’s Lansing clock in Ontario and buy it for $40,000.

Sinclair stripped and repainted the clock and massaged the original motion-work mechanism behind the dials into working order. He replaced the electric movement at the base of the clock with an original Seth Thomas movement, a steampunk symphony in green and gold, beautifully restored by Ben Orszulak of Toronto.

“Even the screws in the body of the clock match the period,” Weil said. “They’re flat head, not Phillips head. The attention to detail is just wonderful.”

Sinclair topped the clock with a spiky new cast-iron finial made from an original pattern. He found an original part from another clock to replace a missing door lock and provided the Friends of Bogardus Plaza with four new winding keys. Four members of the group take turns winding the clock each week.

A photo of the clock awaiting restoration in Sinclair’s shop shows a faceless circle of cast iron. With the mechanical works in place, Sinclair went to Eric Ryback of the St. Louis Clock Co. for the grand finale. Ryback made two tempered glass dials with bold, silk-screened numbers, protected by tempered glass outer dial covers and held in place by two gorgeous cypress wood rings, or bezels.

Weil and other Friends of Bogardus Gardens believe it to be the only free-standing mechanical (weight driven, not electrified) clock in New York.

Weil can see the clock from her apartment window. When it’s her turn to wind the clock, she takes a 30-second walk across the street, opens the winding box and fits a winding key “that’s more like a wrench” into the keyhole.

“This huge weight slowly rises up and it’s good for another week,” she said. “It’s fun and satisfying. Who can complain about winding a clock once a week? We don’t do that anymore. All we do is fast forward through life.”

This is New York, so residents have done their share of kvetching about the Bogardus Plaza project’s delays and expenses, but Weil said the clock has been universally welcomed.

“It’s been hard to set and was running fast for a while,” she said. “I think it’s good now and should be only off by one minute per week. That’s easy to adjust, though.”

The highest compliment to the project, to Weil, is that many visitors from other parts of New York, and even some neighborhood residents, assume that the clock was always there.

“It just adds a weight to the neighborhood that’s authentic,” Weil said. “It reminds us that it’s not always about the here and now. It’s like old, good jewelry. It has weight. Corners aren’t cut. It just feels so solid and right. I’m a little bit in awe of it. You should come and visit.”

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