Town Clock In Need Of Facelift

By: Tim Wood

Topics: Historic preservation

Wear can be seen on the face of the town clock in the steeple of the First United Methodist Church. The town plans to seek community preservation funds to restore the landmark. TIM WOOD PHOTO

CHATHAM – The town clock is in need of an overhaul.

Located in the tower of the First United Methodist Church, the clock's four faces can be seen throughout much of the downtown area. That's both a benefit and a detriment. At its height, it gets the brunt of everything that nature throws at the town.

“It's clearly above the tree line, so definitely is exposed to all of our conditions,” said Principal Projects and Operations Administrator Terry Whalen.

Whalen was busy Tuesday preparing an application for community preservation funds for work on the clock, which had to be filed by Wednesday's deadline. The town will be asking the community preservation committee to endorse funds to refurbish all four clock faces as a cost of between $8,000 and $10,000 under the CPA's historic preservation category.

While the church acts as steward of the clock, it is owned and maintained by the town. Every 10 to 15 years the clock needs a significant overhaul beyond routine maintenance. It's about that time again.

Some mechanical repair work was recently done to the west-facing side of the clock, which had stopped functioning. While all four sides now show the correct time, a close inspection showed that all of them are in need of a facelift.

The original clock was installed in the Methodist Church tower in 1851, just a few years after the church was built, and replaced in 1909 (the hands from the original clock are on display in the lobby of the town offices). The town accepted responsibility for the clock in a 1910 town meeting vote. It was electrified in 1950. Over the years it's been restored and refurbished numerous times, about once a decade to a decade and a half.

In recent years, $4,500 in repairs were made to the clock during a restoration of the church in 1979. In 1993, the town formed a clock fund committee to raise money to both repair the mechanism and initiate an endowment to cover future repair and maintenance. The group raised $40,000, $10,000 of which came from a donation by Chatham Jewelers owner Walter Meier.

In 2008 the church overhauled the steeple, which measures 105 feet from the ground to the top of its four spires. As part of the project, the clock was refurbished, with new numerals, paint and gold leaf. The church had previously raised some $50,000 to maintain the clock; at the time, about $22,000 remained.

That fund was exhausted years ago, according to town Finance Director Alix Heilala. The last time work was done on the clock prior to this fall was in 2014, when some mechanical work was done, Whalen said.

“It seems most of the recent work has been mechanical in nature,” he said.

The $8,000 estimate for work that the clock needs came from steeplejack Christopher Burgess, who made repairs to the west-facing clock this fall and noted that all four sides of the clock are deteriorating and in need of refurbishment.

Burgess' proposal calls for the complete restoration of the clock dials, numerals, minute markers and hands. The hands would be removed, brought to his shop, and what remains of the old finish removed. New numerals and minute markers would be fabricated and new 23K “pure Italian gold leaf” applied to all of the components. Each of the clock faces would be cleaned, scraped, sanded and repainted, and all of the components reinstalled.

New materials that will be used for the elements of the clock should help it hold up better to the weather, Whalen said.

The town may request up to $10,000 from the community preservation committee in order to cover unanticipated expenses, Heilala said. Whelan anticipated filing the CPA application by Wednesday's deadline.

“The town's clocks provide a valuable service to the community and all those people who come and pass through Chatham,” Alan Kuzirian, president of the church's board of trustees, noted in a letter to the selectmen urging that the town pursue the upgrade. “The trustees would like to see that these town icons be preserved for the benefit of Chatham and its community.”