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Seeing time from the inside out in the Custom House

Inside the Custom House clock tower in Boston

The other side of 6. See it larger.

One hundred years ago today, the clock inside the Custom House Tower began running. At exactly noon.

In 1950, the federal government replaced the mechanism up near the top of the tower with a new clock, built by E.Howard in Waltham. By the 1980s, though, the clock mechanisms had fallen apart. A key gear sat at ground level, broken beyond repair.

Then Boston Edison agreed to fund repair of the iconic clock in what used to be Boston's only skyscraper. Most clock repair experts in the Boston area turned them down: The job would just be too difficult, if not impossible, because the mechanisms were in such bad shape - and because the clock was well known for being underpowered for the weight of the hands, which stretch 14 feet for the minute hands and about 11 feet for the hour hands.

But the Hochstrasser brothers, David and Ross, took on the job in 1987 - and got the clock working again in about 3 1/2 months - even if that meant a lot of improvising, such as using wheels from a skate board to bolster a 34-foot long shaft that rotates to turn the hour hand on the side of the building farthest from the clock mechanism. David Hochstrasser also had to replace a key gear - by drawing its shape on paper, then giving that to a local foundry so it could make the specialized cutting tool he needed to recreate the original gears. They dealt with the power problem by replacing the heavy wooden minute hands with lighter composite-polymer hands.

The Hochstrassers continue to maintain the clock and its faces to this day, although now for Marriott, which converted the tower into a suite hotel. It's tough, they said today, as they showed off the clockwork, to keep a large outdoor clock running. A stiff wind can knock the hands out of alignment. Accumulating snow and ice can just stop the clock completely.

David Hochstrasser said he got a frantic call from the hotel that now occupies the tower around 7 a.m. on Monday because the clock had stopped - not good just two days before it planned to show off the works to reporters and others on the 100th anniversary just two days later. He told them he'd be in first thing Tuesday to fix it - didn't make much sense to come in in the middle of the storm that was just then beginning to whip up.

But today, on the hundredth anniversary of the iconic clock, everything was ticking to perfection:

Custom House clock gears

The gear at the top is the one David Hochstrasser had to replace.

The gears are powered by a platform with weights on it that slowly descends (the clock in front shows the position of hand on the outside faces). About every ten hours, a lever on the side of the platform presses a switch that turns on an electric motor that raises the weights so that they can once again power the clock. David Hochstrasser has little truck with today's electrical, and even GPS driven public clocks. "I can make all the gears in that clock," he says, pointing at the mechanism. "I can't make you an electric motor." He says the Custom House clock even has the ability to be run completely by hand with a bit more repair work - although that would require having a person cranking a gear to raise the weights every ten hours, he allows.

The Hochstrassers, who grew up on the South Shore, say they've loved clocks since they were kids - when David was 4, Ross had to stop him from disassembling their grandfather's pocket watch with a pair of pliers. As a teenager, David recalls getting annoyed on family visits to Boston because he'd look up from the back seat while they were on the Central Artery and see that the Custom House clock wasn't working - each face told a different time.

Today, the brothers repair everything from small ladies' watches to giant clocks such as the one in the Custom House and an even older one at Old South Meeting House. David Hochstrasser says he usually has a couple of dozen clocks in various states of repair in his workshop - most ticking and cuckooing and chiming.

The numbers in the clock faces are surrounded by blue lights - and the sockets they plug into:

Custom House lights

The skateboard wheels that support the longest rotating shaft:

Custom House wheels

One main mechanism turns shafts that move the hands on all four sides of the building (a separate case holds the weights that power the gears):

Custom House clock rods

The Custom House in 1848, before it got its tower (the rotunda still exists, although you can't see it from the outside):

Custom House without a tower

1848 image from the BPL collection. Posted under this Creative Commons license.

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Comments

I would think that giant clocks are pretty tight ships, so any gear is a "key" gear. They don't throw those in willy-nilly, donchaknow.

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Wonderful history lesson. Among other things, I didn't know that the building existed without the tower at one time. I just assumed it was built with it.

Suldog
http://jimsuldog.blogspot.com

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I'm glad that you posted this, and namechecked Dave Hochstrasser.

My husband grew up with "Percy and Banger" and their constant disassembly of anything and everything mechanical, their smokebomb BMW 2002s, and their clock fascination dating to childhood. "Percy" has a shop in Hanover that services any and all sorts of clocks: http://davidsclockshop.com/. He owned the Scituate Harbor shop, taking it over from the former owner, until CVS expanded and booted him from the space.

We have an old german clock that he gave my husband long ago.

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The clock mechanism (mounted on a platform in a room with a pool table) was interesting enough by itself to warrant photos, but their explanations of their work on it and learning about their clock lives was really the best part of my visit.

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Dave is great. Exactly what you need and expect from a person that fixes old clocks.

Now if we could just get Marriott to go back to 10 o'clock and 4 o'clock visit times and not just once a day. They have been slowly squeezing public access to the observation deck for some time now.

$100 reward from me if anyone can produce the document between the City and Marriott that ensures the public's access to the observation deck.

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$100 reward from me if anyone can produce the document between the City and Marriott that ensures the public's access to the observation deck.

It's probably with the document mandating an observation deck at the Hancock Tower 200 Clarendon.

http://boston.cbslocal.com/2011/09/11/hancock-towe...

Certainly not the first entity to profit from the 9/11 card.

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The Hancock is a private building and current Killer Whale exploiter (look it up) David D'Allesandro but then Hancock chief wanted the Hancock deck closed for years. 9/11 was just the excuse they needed.

The deal that allowed Marriott to take over the Custom House from the city was to allow access to the observation deck. This was a multi-billion dollar company being handed a public building in the middle of Boston for peanuts. One part of the agreement was that public access was to be allowed to the observation deck. At first Marriott used to just instruct you to the elevator anytime of the day between 10 to 6. Then Marriott started making you wait while they tried to sell you a time share. Then Marriott started strongly suggesting a donation to the whatever Marriott charity is in vogue, now the donation is mandatory. It is not the cost per se, it is the privatization creep of public property.

$100 to whomever produces that agreement that mandates pubic access. I cannot find it, which is unreal because finding obscure public data is part of what I do for a living. Email me at [email protected] if you come up with anything.

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The building is owned by the city, leased by Marriot. The supposed public benefits also included the public access to the park between the building and the building with a convenience store and the sidewalk/plaza outside surrounding. Those public areas and the street alongside have now been converted to private parking. Another example of how the BRA and city hype public benefits - observation deck access, park, maintaining outside plaza- and let the just disappear over time.

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Thanks for the kind words Swirlygrrl! I am wracking my brain trying to figure out who you are, it's not often that Ross or I give away a German clock.

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Great story. Also I'm a big fan of any Custom House picture that leaves out the freakin' parking lot that Marriott turned the outside into....Cars jammed into every space outside. What do they think this is, City Hall Plaza? At least the cars at City Hall don't make that place any uglier (because that would be impossible).

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I believe part of Marriott's lease of the building from the city said they have to allow the public up to the observation deck. But then they restricted it to certain times of day (possibly just at 2 pm Monday-Thursday these days), and then they started charging. And sometimes they close it for no reason.

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It's not a fee.

It's a required "donation" to the Children’s Miracle Network.

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Tedeschi replaced the broken clock with a logo instead of fixing the landmark clock at Tedeschi Food Shop on Broadway in Cambridge, photo of clock at
http://www.yelp.com/biz/tedeschi-food-shops-cambridge

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I feel the need to come to the defense of Marriott. I read a lot of comments here about Marriott being ‘given’ the building for ‘peanuts’. Trust me they did not get the building for peanuts. I do not know what the total cost of restoration was but I recall hearing that the company responsible for replacing the many (was it over 150?) broken granite blocks on the exterior had a contract that was around $30 million. Definitely not peanuts and they were just one of dozens of contractors working on the building.

The first time I went into the Custom House back in 1985 it was almost empty of all offices and within a year or so it was completely abandoned. The building had started leaking rain water through the roof, walls, and windows sometime in the 70’s. As the higher floors started getting water damage the offices on that floor would be relocated to a lower floor, or as the usable space diminished, to another building. This was repeated over and over as the water damage made its way down floor to floor until the building was empty.

The elevator that takes you from the 19th floor on up was rarely if ever working. In order to get up to the clock room you had to use the stairs. The steps were all covered in peeled paint, crumbling plaster, and in places bits of concrete. When the GSA turned the building over to the city it was an abandoned, crumbling, unusable wreck.

If memory serves correctly the GSA declared the buliding surplus and offered it up for sale in the ’85 – ’87 time range. I can’t remember if I read this in the paper or heard it at one of the many meetings we attended but I recall learning that with the asking price and the estimated cost to renovate the building the ultimate cost of the space in the Custom House would be three to four times the going rate per square foot in that area. With that in mind there was little to no interest in the building, it just made no sense financially.

With no commercial takers the city was sold the building at a very low cost (or perhaps even given the building?) just before the restoration of the clock got underway in the summer of 1987. Boston Edison paid for the restoration of the clock and the lighting of the exterior of the building as a gift to the city. Their intention was to present the city with this gift and hand over the care of the clock and lighting to the city or the new occupant of the building. Because of the condition of the building and all the regulations regarding the use of the building there were no suitable takers so the building sat vacant for the next decade. The city was not maintaining the lighting or the clock so Boston Edison continued to pay for the maintenance. After supporting the clock and lighting for a period of about 5 years Boston Edison had had enough and informed us that they would no longer be paying to maintaining the clock. At this point the Boston Redevelopment Association had control of the building and with their limited budget no funds were available for routine maintenance. During this time the clock would be stopped or inaccurate for long periods (longer than I would like anyway) until we would be allowed access to reset the clock (often at our own expense). Light bulbs would burn out and not be replaced. You can imagine what was happening to the condition of the building if the city was not even allowing enough in the budget for the replacement of burnt out light bulbs.

I know that the mindset these days is that the public sector should not help big business in anyway. The truth of the matter here is that if the Marriott had not come forward with the funds to restore and more importantly maintain the building it would probably be crumbling to dust because there was little to no hope of the city ever restoring or even maintaining the building to the extent it so desperately needed.

As far as access to the building is concerned, if you were attempting to go there last summer access was probably denied because of safety concerns. The top 1/3 of the building was covered in netting/scaffolding so workers could seal the building to prevent further water damage, yes the building was leaking again. I was not involved there last summer but I assume that the observation deck was probably getting much needed repairs as well as being used for a staging area for the work on the roof.

I am just now getting involved at the Custom House after an absence of three years so I may be out of line here with some of these details, just know that this is how it used to be. Access to the building is restricted for safety reasons, they can not allow just anyone free access to the upper floors. Access to the observation deck used to be Monday-Thursday afternoons at 2:00, weather permitting as the deck is the ONLY open air observation deck in the city. Friday through Sunday are peak times for guests so access is not allowed during this time. A Marriott employee, usually the concierge, would escort a group up to the observation deck where they would be allowed to spend as much time as they wanted (?) and on the way down stop off at the clock room to see the clock. I would usually see guests filtering into the clock room around 2:30-3:00. As some have pointed out they charge a fee of $2.00 for this access BUT all proceeds do go to charity. Prior to Marriott taking over it was impossible to obtain any access to the building so I think putting up with a little inconvenience and paying a couple of bucks for access to one of the city’s most impressive views is well worth the effort required.

I think we should applaud Marriott for their efforts to rescue and maintain this building!

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