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:
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:
The skateboard wheels that support the longest rotating shaft:
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):
The Custom House in 1848, before it got its tower (the rotunda still exists, although you can't see it from the outside):
1848 image from the BPL collection. Posted under this Creative Commons license.