City Hall clock tower to undergo renovations this fall
Behind a locked door in City Hall, there's an aging elevator that can barely hold three passengers and is known for breaking down as it makes its way up and down the tower that hosts the building's giant clock.
It's not a glamorous ride, but this fall it will be a popular one. That's when workers will begin an extensive restoration project on the four-sided clock that has been part of the city's skyline for more than a century.
During the restoration, the rusted clock hands will be removed and sent away to a company that will refurbish them. The porcelain enameled steel faces that are suffering from corrosion and damaged with small holes will also be removed and replaced with a translucent material that will allow the faces to be backlit for the first time in half a century. The entire structure that supports the faces - currently a number of metal support bars - will also be examined. In addition, the mechanism that runs the clock will be removed for inspection and any needed repairs to it made.
A grant from the Minnesota Historical Society will cover about one-fourth of the cost of the $380,000 project. The rest of the renovation will be paid for by Minneapolis, Hennepin County and the state, said Municipal Building Director Jos Cervantes. Minneapolis and Hennepin County jointly own and operate the Municipal Building, and together they will pay for the bulk of the project.
The work has to be completed by June 2007 to be in compliance with the grant requirements, but meeting that deadline will depend on how quickly the Municipal Building Commission can formally approve a contractor and construction materials can be obtained. The Municipal Building Commission doesn't meet again until late summer, so the clock tower restoration won't begin until after that.
Officials with the Municipal Building Commission started looking at renovating the clock in 2001, when there was an outage and the gears had to be replaced. But nothing was done until the grant from the Minnesota Historical Society jump-started the project.
“That really sparked things,” said Melissa Milless, an employee at the Municipal Building who extensively researched the history of the clock tower and wrote the grant application for the renovation.
The clock tower was originally built in 1895 and has had just a handful of major problems in more than a century of operation. Yet refurbishing the clock at City Hall will be no small task. Each of the clock's four faces is larger in diameter than a railroad tunnel, and the minute hands are each 12 feet long. High inside the Municipal Building is a room that features the dark backsides of the four giant clock faces set into brick walls spanning the height of several stories.
From that vantage point, it comes as no surprise that the 345-foot clock tower was the tallest structure in Minneapolis until the Foshay Tower was built in 1929. At the time of the clock's construction, it was touted as the largest in the world, and it still rivals the Great Clock in London, which houses the famous hour bell Big Ben.
The original clock faces at the Municipal Building were made of ornate glass. But when they were replaced in 1949, officials chose to use porcelain enamel.
“We're trying to work through what the material should be now,” Milless said about the clock faces that look out onto 4th Street, 4th Avenue, 5th Street and 3rd Avenue.
In the new design, Municipal Building Commission officials want to make the clock faces seamless rather than the metal joints that connect the faces of the clock now.
Municipal Building Commission employees are researching similar clock restoration projects across the nation, including those in Milwaukee and Lawrence, Mass. But while they offer good case studies, the clock tower in Minneapolis is different because it is so large.
“We're looking at restoration projects in various stages,” Milless said. “But it's hard because there aren't many clocks our size.”
Kari VanDerVeen can be reached at [email protected] and 436-4373