Tribeca is one of the few neighborhoods where you can tell time by a 19th-century clock tower, as the mechanical timepiece at the top of 346 Broadway has been hand-wound every week since its restoration in the 1980s. Yet the sale by the city of the building in 2013 for $160 million put the historic clock’s future in limbo, with developers planning to remake the tower into a condo and electrify the clock.
This week, the New York State Supreme Court ruled that these revisions for the space went against its status as a landmarked interior. David W. Dunlap reported for the New York Times:
Justice Lynn R. Kotler of State Supreme Court ruled on Thursday that the city’s Landmarks Preservation Commission had a power that the commission says it did not have: to require the owners of the Clock Tower Building at 346 Broadway to maintain the 19th-century mechanical works at the heart of the four-faced clock that overlooks the civic center in Lower Manhattan.
The clock, made by E. Howard Clock Company, was added by architects McKim, Mead & White to their design of the former New York Life Insurance Company Building in the late 1890s. It became a city building in the 20th century. Justice Lynn R. Kotler stated in her decision that there “can be no dispute that the internal mechanism by which the clock operates is a significant portion of the clock itself.” The Landmark Preservation Commission (LPC) had issued a certificate of appropriateness to developers Peebles Corporation and El Ad Group for the conversion, which Kotler overturned.
Last year, the New York Daily News reported that Michael S. Hiller, who served as the lawyer for those opposed to the conversion, said it was “likely the first time ever that the city has allowed an interior landmark to be sold off for use as a private living space, to be completely fenced off from public view.” So the ramifications of the decision go beyond the distinguished clock, which is perched up among stone eagles, in affirming the power of interior landmarking protection, which not even LPC can reverse.
Two of those opponents represented by Hiller are Marvin Schneider, New York City’s official Clock Master, and fellow former city worker Forest Markowitz. Schneider, with Eric Reiner, volunteered lunch breaks to restore the clock’s mechanics. It was returned to working condition by 1980, after it had been dormant for two decades. And each week for the over 30 following years, the clock was hand-wound, and the public was often welcome to attend.
I had the chance to visit one of these windings back in 2013. This was after the Clocktower gallery, formerly in the space below, had departed. Climbing up a winding metal staircase, we were greeted with a beautiful mountain of gears in a small wooden structure, surrounded on four sides by the huge silhouettes of the clock faces, the long minute and hour hands could be seen through the milky glass. Another ladder accessed a 5,000-pound-bell, now quiet, hovering over the space.
Most of New York City’s clock towers are either now demolished or electric rather than mechanical. Schneider and Merkowitz use a huge crank to raise the 1,000-pound weight that lowers over eight days and powers the clock. It is a small, noisy, living experience with the city’s history, and the only one of its kind. You can check out the kinetic action in this short video, and hopefully through the ruling there will be more chances to hear the clamor yourself:
The clock tower is at 346 Broadway in Tribeca, Manhattan.