At a standstill

City Hall’s Clock Tower renovation project on hold

There’s good news and bad news for the giant clock tower that sits majestically at the top of City Hall.

While city officials are working to get the four-sided clock telling accurate time again by the end of the year, a more extensive renovation of the clock tower has been postponed indefinitely.

The clock hasn’t worked since December 2006, when Municipal Building staff members stopped it after they found metal shavings that indicated the gears that rotate the hands were grinding. Repairing the clock, which has experienced several outages in recent years, will cost an estimated $100,000. At least some of the money for the repairs will come from funding originally earmarked for a planned restoration

Getting the clock up and running took priority over the project to restore the clock tower, said Municipal Building Commission Director José Cervantes. The restoration project, backed by a grant from the Minnesota Historical Society, was planned before the most recent clock outage and was originally scheduled to get under way this summer. But when the only bid the Municipal Building Commission received for the work came in at $1.6 million — a far cry from the $400,000 an initial study several years ago indicated the project would cost —
Cervantes said officials had to reevaluate the restoration project.

 “I wish I could tell you it’s going to be next year, but my heart says it’s probably not going to happen. It’s probably going to be delayed two to three years,” Cervantes said, adding that such a large amount of funding will need to be added to the list of capital projects already in queue. “The highest priority was really to get the clock mechanism replaced so the clock would tell accurate time. The other components of the clock [restoration] had to be deferred.”

Minneapolis and Hennepin County jointly own the Municipal Building, which houses City Hall and the Hennepin County Courthouse, and share costs associated with it. Cervantes said the Municipal Building Commission has applied for capital funding for the restoration project from both the city and county but won’t know the outcome of either application until the end of the year.

“That’s when we’ll know if we have funds to do the larger, what I would call more aesthetic, restoration,” Cervantes said.

One indicator of the funding the project could receive is in the report the city’s Capital Long-Range Improvements Committee (CLIC) released July 16. CLIC, which recommends which capital projects in Minneapolis should receive funding, did not recommend any funding for the clock tower upgrade in the 2008–2012 horizon. The Municipal Building Commission requested $886,000 from the city. CLIC works with a predetermined level of funding set by the City Council and ranks projects on a number of criteria to determine what is funded first.

“I can’t really say what the future will hold.  In light of the pressing operations and capital funding gaps the city has, I think the future of historic preservation projects is linked closely to exceptional citizen involvement and coming to the table with additional funding partners,” CLIC member Jason Stone said.

The county’s Capital Budgeting Task Force, its equivalent to CLIC, won’t deliver its funding recommendations to the Hennepin County Board of Commissioners until this fall.

The clock tower restoration project would involve several components. The rusted clock hands will be removed and sent away to a company that will refurbish them. The porcelain-enameled steel faces, which are suffering from corrosion and damaged with small holes, will be removed and replaced with translucent acrylic panels that will allow the faces to be backlit for the first time in half a century. The metal bars that support the faces will also be examined.

Those elements were all supposed to be addressed in a renovation project that was intended to be completed by June 2007 in order to be in compliance with the requirements of the grant awarded by the Minnesota Historical Society. That grant would have covered about one-fourth of the $380,000 the restoration was originally estimated to cost. Cervantes said he talked to the Historical Society, which agreed to allow the Municipal Building Commission to use a portion of the grant funding in the immediate repair of the clock mechanism.

“They’re still a partner on this project, albeit in a piecemeal fashion,” Cervantes said.

The Municipal Building Commission hired a Wisconsin company to fix the clock mechanism and get the clock up and running again. Cervantes said the Municipal Building Commission Board also obtained a 10-year warranty so the contractor will be responsible for keeping the clock running well into the future.

“The board was really interested in having the mechanical upgrades of the clock mechanism done with a long-term view … We didn’t want a short-term mechanical fix,” Cervantes said, noting that the more extensive fix is also what has prompted the higher price tag.

Work on repairing the clock mechanism could begin within the next month or so. The timeline for the overall restoration project will depend on when the Municipal Building Commission is able to obtain capital funding, Cervantes said. The one bid the Municipal Building Commission was able to receive for the work is an indicator of how complicated the project will be on a very tall, historic structure, he said.

“For all our elected officials … the clock is really near and dear to them. They have a lot of anxiety about the clock being down,” Cervantes said. “Some of that anxiety is going to be subdued by having the clock running again accurately. So I think that gives us the opportunity to really plan for the long-term restoration.”

Reach Kari VanDerVeen at
[email protected] or 436-4373.