New York, City of Broken Clocks
Broken clocks are one more way that we neglect the public realm, make it less useful, less accommodating, less civic minded.
11:29 AM EST on November 17, 2023
Sometime during the pandemic, I noticed something that I now can’t stop noticing: public clocks showing the wrong time.
They’re everywhere—on big, beautiful, neoclassical towers in Manhattan; on shabby little commercial buildings in the outer boroughs; on bus stop shelters and in subway stations; outside supermarkets and banks. Public clocks, broken, or just plain wrong.
The big wall clocks outside the Super Foodtown in Bed-Stuy—both are fast. The elegant church steeple clock on Henry Street on the Lower East Side—way off. The tower clock on the old Bond Bread Bakery near Prospect Park—permanently frozen at 12:25.
The more of these I’ve seen, the more baffled I’ve become. Many of these timepieces are the crowning architectural features of distinguished, old buildings. How could you just let them be wrong?
Some of these buildings are even named for their clocks. Take the Clocktower Building in Downtown Brooklyn, a 1920s-era structure in a prominent spot on Gold Street where it is always, apparently, 9:00.
There’s another Clocktower Building with busted clocks in DUMBO, this one architecturally significant enough to have been landmarked by the City. In 1998, DUMBO real estate billionaire David Walentas of Two Trees Management converted the building into luxury condominiums, turning the clock tower itself into a triplex apartment that an art dealer bought for $15 million. Walentas left the clocks intact but turned them into windows, meaning whoever lives in this multimillion-dollar penthouse has to peer out past giant hour and minute hands pointing perpetually to the incorrect time.
Two Trees told me they no longer manage the building, and the clocks worked when they did, at least most of the time. The building superintendent and property management company did not respond to inquiries.
I see the DUMBO Clocktower every time I bike over the Brooklyn Bridge. It’s a great building—a stately hulk of reinforced concrete that looms over the East River. But the clocks are always off, and I always feel a minor pique at the sight of them. A public clock is a public amenity—designed to be useful even to those of us who aren’t enriching the clock’s owner. To leave one perpetually busted suggests a casual indifference among the landed class to whether their buildings enhance or detract from the public space of the city.
New York has way bigger problems than broken public clocks, but I can’t help seeing something insidious in them—just another way that we neglect the public realm, make it less useful, less accommodating, less civic minded. We pull out all the benches (or build spaces without them), we barricade off public steps and plazas, we give parks over to private companies to run or let them build giant, useless baubles instead, we let the clocks spin off into obsolescence. It bothers Tom Bernardin too.
"It just sends out a signal that nobody cares," said Bernardin, president of Save America’s Clocks. The group, which he founded out of his rent-stabilized Greenwich Village apartment in 1997, has turned our nettlesome preoccupation into a full-blown preservation project. SAC members see public clocks as an architectural and mechanical heritage under threat. Cities used to be filled with all sorts of public timekeeping devices—tower clocks, wall clocks, street post clocks, bells, time balls, sundials—and people relied on them. But gradually they’ve disappeared—clock towers get torn down, street post clocks get knocked over by cars. SAC members are no Pollyannas—they know we don’t need the clocks anymore. Everyone has one on their phone; plus public clocks can be expensive and tricky to maintain. But they’re still trying.
Results have been mixed. "There's just probably less interest in the public realm in general than there once was," said Jeremy Woodoff, a SAC member and former staffer of the City’s Landmarks Preservation Commission. "The idea of having your building represent a well-maintained, well-operating presence for the public is just not considered as important as it once was."
I asked Woodoff if there were any property owners in the city who take good care of their public clocks. He mentioned two: the Paramount Building in Times Square and the Metropolitan Life Tower in the Flatiron district. I visited them a few weeks later. The clocks on both were wrong.
I remember first noticing the Met Life Tower while wandering around the city as a teenager. It’s always been an impressive but funny building to me, as if New York’s early skyscraper builders had injected St. Mark's Campanile in Venice with steroids. At 700 feet, Met Life was briefly the world’s tallest building; its four clock faces span three stories.
"One of the great clocks of the world," the New York Times wrote in 1907. "It will be visible for miles."
Marriott International bought the tower around 2011 and turned it into a luxury hotel. The lead designer said he modeled the hotel on the city’s Gilded Age private clubs and mansions. Its website boasts butler service and a guest-only spa; rooms go for $600 to $10,000 a night.
The clocks have shown the incorrect time for months. Last week they were covered in gauzy, black netting, as if the hotel was ashamed of them. A spokesperson for the hotel said they were turned off because of construction. She did not say when they would be turned back on.
The Met Life Tower was landmarked by the City's Landmarks Preservation Commission—a protection that does not, apparently, require that the clocks be right. The commission’s seeming nonchalance about clocks exasperates SAC members, especially when they get going about the clock tower at 346 Broadway in Tribeca. For more than a century, its four dials were powered by an elaborate contraption of weights, cogs, and cables that itself was unique enough to be landmarked in 1987. The clock tower itself was long open to the public. But, in 2014, the commission agreed to let developers El Ad Group and Peebles Corporation convert the building into—what else?—luxury condos, replace the old clock mechanism with an electric motor, and turn the clock tower into a private penthouse apartment. The clocks still run, but they’ve been chronically wrong since the developers took over (although they were nearly right for once the last time I checked).
The outcome especially gutted Marvin Schneider, the City’s 84-year-old clock master (yes, the City has a clock master on the payroll). Schneider maintained the Tribeca clocks for decades.
"The 346 Broadway case is a dark stain on the City's reputation, especially the Landmarks Preservation Commission," Schneider told me. "They were really not true to their mission."
A commission spokeswoman said it generally does not require landmarked clocks to remain operational, but that the owners of 346 Broadway promised to keep the clock working and have repaired it previously in response to complaints.
On its website, El Ad boasts “one of the highest rankings in ROI and profit margin for new construction and residential conversions.” Neither El Ad nor Peebles responded to requests for comment.
"New York City sold its soul to the real estate industry years ago," SAC's Bernardin said. “It’s horrible what New York has become." He added, "It’s just all development and empty storefronts and tax abatements and gouging rents."
There are still some public clocks that tell the time. I bike by one frequently—a nice, round analog clock on a quiet corner in Crown Heights, affixed to the facade of a funeral home. It’s right every time I see it. One day, I wandered into the business to find out what they were doing that luxury developers apparently could not. There, I met the Hill sisters—Felicia, Charise, and Sharon. They run the funeral home together, along with Charise's husband, Charles. The sisters took over the business from their late father, who founded it with his brother in 1959. The clock has been there as long as anyone can remember.
Why is their clock always right? Because they care about it, they said, and so do others in the community. People in the neighborhood actually use the clock; when it’s been wrong in the past, the sisters have gotten calls. The clock broke about 15 years ago, so they replaced it. It wasn’t cheap, but they’d do it again.“So much is changing in the neighborhood. So many people have passed away, or they’re getting pushed out because they can’t afford to live here,” Charise said. Charles continued, “It just means a lot to the community to keep something original intact.”
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