On a busy strip of Jamaica Avenue in Queens, where vendors sell phone cases in front of stores selling inexpensive wigs, tattoo services, and nail care products, is one of downtown Jamaica's most worthy residents. That street corner dweller is an ornate, cast-iron sidewalk clock more than a century old and dressed with archaic formality like a proud coder who still wears his worn out suit every day even as the world goes by.
The battered old watch has not given the time in years, it has survived at least two attacks of unfortunate facial reconstruction, and until recently no one had a fixed idea of its origins. Even after local guides managed to find means to restore the ailing watch, they were at a loss as to how to proceed as they could not find photos that showed the original appearance. And without such documentation, it was difficult to explain to the city's landmarks commission, which oversees 24/7, how a historically appropriate restoration could be carried out.
But a bit of detective work by historians of the arcane world of watchmaking led to the unexpected discovery late last month that the watch was likely a rare surviving creation by an innovative 19th-century company that once shipped precision timepieces around the world from a humming factory at the Clinton Hill neighborhood in Brooklyn.
Electric Time, a Massachusetts company that has restored antique sidewalk clocks on Steinway Street in Queens and outside Eataly in Madison Square, Manhattan, has been selected to carry out the restoration of the Jamaica clock, which is expected to be completed by June 30th becomes.
Standing 15 feet high in front of a Chase Bank on Union Hall Street, the double-sided clock is topped with a classic hymn finish. The clock's dented head, which may have had an uncomfortable encounter with a truck, rests on a tapered, fluted pillar rising from a rusty, paneled pedestal whose damaged access door is taped shut.
One of only seven landmark urban sidewalk clocks, it probably dates from around the turn of the century, when such flashy public timekeepers were common in the city and often installed as advertisements for nearby businesses. Company names have sometimes been painted on the dials, and the Landmarks Commission believes the Jamaica Avenue clock was installed by Busch's jewelers outside No. 161-11.
But who made the watch and what it originally looked like has been a long-standing mystery. The brief report on the designation of the city's landmarks offers no indication of which company made this particular machine. He merely points out that such clocks could be bought from catalogs for about $ 600 and that the leading manufacturers in the east were the Seth Thomas Clock Company and E. Howard clock companies that made the surviving sidewalk clocks on Third Avenue near 85th Street and in front of the Sherry-Netherland Hotel on Fifth Avenue. However, the clock from Jamaica does not match the designs of these watch companies.
The Jamaica dial has also changed over time. The dials of early sidewalk clocks usually took up the entire dial, but by 1940, when the oldest known photograph of the Jamaica clock was taken, the full dial had been replaced with a smaller dial surrounded by an outer ring with lettering – likely neon. The watch, at that time near a shoe shop in the shadow of an elevated train, was photographed from too far away to see many details.
"The photo shows the clock was modified in the process of electrification, like many in the 1930s," said Jeremy Woodoff, board member of Save America's Clocks, a conservation group. The dials of the old clocks were generally made smaller because large hands were too heavy for the new electric clocks to work.
When the city granted protection to the symbol of the Jamaica clock in 1981, the outer ring around the dial was adorned with the curved words "Tad & # 39; s Steaks" in neon.
But in 1989 the clock was changed again by the Greater Jamaica Development Corporation and moved across the avenue to 161-10, apparently without the required inspection by the Landmarks Commission. The small dials have been replaced and given non-historical brass numbers that resemble the cheap house numbers sold in hardware stores. The neon sign "Tad & # 39; s Steaks" was removed from the outer ring of each face, which was replaced with a flat steel ring with "Jamaica Center" painted on it.
The watch's current restoration plans were sparked by Thomas Crater, a crusade activist known for cycling around Jamaica, spotting problems, and firing complaint emails to city officials and elected officials.
"Tom felt that if the clock stopped, the neighborhood was bad and no one cares enough to fix it," said Jim Vaccaro, who manages quality control for the Greater Jamaica Development Corporation.
Although responsibility for the watch is murky and neither the city nor any other institution claims ownership, the Jamaica Center Business Improvement District has made it their business to have the watch restored. Jennifer Furioli, the group's executive director, secured $ 30,000 each from the city and councilor I. Daneek Miller. The local development company manages the contract.
Electric Time was hired to do an initial diagnostic analysis of the clock and Save America & # 39; s Clocks was brought in to lead the project.
The central question was to which of the clock's various incarnations it should be restored.
"Are you going back to the change of the 1930s or how it was originally?" said Mr. Woodoff of Save America & # 39; s Clocks. And how could you restore it to its original appearance if you didn't have evidence of what the original dial looked like?
Mr Woodoff had been interested in the Jamaica watch for a long time and tried unsuccessfully in 2015 to oust its manufacturer in the online forum of a national watch collectors group. In emails starting last fall and calling Zoom this March, Tom Erb, president of Electric Time, and clock experts at Save America & # 39; s Clocks have delved into theories about the origins of the clock.
"They talked, talked, talked, and I could see the sparks go off when they found things out," said Ms. Furioli.
Eventually the puzzle was solved when Mr. Erb and Mr. Woodoff, separately pursuing the same theory, both consulted reprints of a 1908 catalog for the Self-Winding Clock Company, a long-gone Brooklyn company that made sidewalk clocks much like Jamaica Avenue . It was a Eureka moment for both men.
Mr. Woodoff looked at a model of a sidewalk clock called the Standard and was impressed by how much the fluted, tapered post in the picture looked like the post on the Jamaica clock. The bases and heads also had something in common.
Recognizing this tell-tale illustration was "a bit like identifying the painter of a formerly anonymous beloved picture," said Woodoff.
For Mr Erb, the saddle was the most definitive common element – the curved collar that connects the clock's head to its post. At first, he and his engineers thought the Jamaica saddle "looked like something someone welded for repair in the 1940s," he said. "But if you look closely, it's a casting, so it's original."
The Self-Winding Clock Company was founded in 1886 by oilmen Charles Pratt and E.T. Bedford, the Inventor Chester H. Pond, who received a patent for an automatic watch, and others.
The company's 1908 catalog stated that the key to the innovative automatic winding of its watch was having a fine spring "wound automatically once an hour by a small electric motor attached to the movement". The electrical power to drive this motor was obtained from two small dry cell batteries in the watch case. The clock would turn itself for at least a year.
The company has partnered with Western Union for a time sharing service. Each hour, the correct time was transmitted over telegraph lines from the United States Naval Observatory in Washington, DC to subscribers' automatic watches, which then automatically moved their hands to correct the time on their faces. The service costs a dollar a month.
Notable self-winding creations in New York included clocks on the original Pennsylvania Station, the Tiffany glass clock on the gable of Grand Central Terminal, and the four-face clock tower on the Metropolitan Life Building in Madison Square. The company also supplied clocks for the New York Underground system and the London Underground.
Self-Winding's facility was on Mr. Pratt's property on the northeast corner of Willoughby Avenue and Grand Avenue, across from Willoughby across from the Pratt Institute, founded by Mr. Pratt, which has an automatic clock on its tower of the main building. The company continued to operate at this location even after the Pratt Institute bought the property from Mr. Pratt's property in 1897.
The company bought the property from the institute for $ 50,000 in 1917 and began building a new factory there three years later. The factory was built to designs by architects Shampan & Shampan and was on or near the site that is now the Pratt Institute's Willoughby Residence Hall.
The Jamaica Avenue timekeeper is the only surviving sidewalk clock in town, made by the once powerful self-winding company that closed around 1970. Although the details of the restoration are not yet complete, the two new dials will be the full 36-inch diameter dials, according to the designs in the 1908 brochure.
The dials will likely be made of backlit white-backlit glass and black Arabic numerals, one of the options the company offered. The base, post and dented head are repaired. And the clock shows the time again, its hands are driven by new, electrically powered mechanisms. The accuracy is ensured by a receiver that receives the correct time from small atomic clocks in satellites of the Global Positioning System.
"I think every community has pride in the street scene, pride in a sense of place, especially when you feel like something was once so elegant," said Ms. Furioli of the business improvement district. "The clock is an emotional touchstone, and people want to make sure that their neighborhood is preserved."
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