Long Abandoned Clock Tower is Returning to Life in Queens
The clock tower on the U-Haul building in Flushing, Queens (all photos by the author)
The four-sided clock tower that presides over Queens, New York, from atop the U-Haul building on College Point Boulevard along Flushing Creek has long been frozen. For years the hands have been stuck at about 11 o'clock — those that hadn't fallen off, that is — but a restoration is underway to bring the historic timepiece back to life.
"As part of U-Haul's sustainability efforts, we prefer to reuse existing buildings and preserve as many of the historical aspects of the building as possible," explained Will Wolff III, Marketing Company President of the U-Haul Company of Brooklyn/Queens/Staten Island. "While the clock doesn't necessarily serve a purpose at the location directly, our operation does serve the community. Having the clock running is a benefit to the community more than anything."
The W. J. Sloane Furniture Co. in 1927 & 1935 on the Flushing Creek (via NYPL)
The building, and its timepiece made by the Seth Thomas Clock Company in Connecticut, dates to 1925. It was constructed by W & J. Sloane Furniture Co. for their subsidiary, the Company of Master Craftsmen. Serval Zipper Company, which made, as its name suggests, fasteners, purchased the building in 1942. In 1979 it was taken over by U-Haul, which continues to operate a storage center in the space to this day.
The restoration project started with an initial investigation of the space in December of last year. The journey up to the tower is a precarious one, with a winding staircase followed by a steep ladder. The long-abandoned clock tower was in a state of disarray in December (the photographs in this post are from Atlas Obscura's visit that month), but the scaffolding that extended up the high ceiling and the light filtering through the clock faces still hinted at a stately past.
Spiral staircase to the clock tower
One of the clock faces
Vertical view of the clock tower from beneath the center differential
NYC Clock Master Marvin Schneider examining the timepiece
The clock was in pieces, its gears and parts bent and scattered around the debris. Joining that initial inspection to give a technical assessment were Marvin Schneider — New York City's Clock Master — and Forrest Merkowitz, who have both worked on clocks around the boroughs, including the weekly winding of the timepiece on top of the New York City Municipal Offices on Broadway and Leonard Street in Manhattan.
"The first surprise was that we weren't missing as many parts as we thought," Wolff said. As workers with U-Haul, along with Peter Dispensa, a Project Manager at New York City Department of Environmental Protection, worked through the wreckage, they found that quite a few of the gears and other pieces were hidden in the grime. Some were warped and needed to be straightened, but a project that they'd anticipated costing between $25,000 to $100,000 was suddenly reduced to around $5,000.
Ceiling of the clock tower
Clock face behind an old wooden ladder
It's still quite an undertaking, as sometime during Serval's ownership of the clock it was changed from a pendulum-operated mechanical system to a motor. "After the motor, everything is still original," Wolff said. "We had some initial problems with the broken gears because at first glance they appeared aluminum which can't be repaired, but we later discovered that most of the parts are bronze, which allowed us to be able to repair the original gears rather than recreate them from scratch."
Some of the panes of milky glass in the clock faces still need to be replaced, but the motor is on its way to being rebuilt, and the center gear differential is being reassembled, ready to control the clock hands that will be remade and fixed on the exteriors of the faces. At the project's completion, they hope to have all original Seth Thomas Clock Company equipment with no reproductions in the clock tower.
View of a clock face
Original clock part
While not many may look to the clock to get the time these days, the clock tower is an icon of pride for many in the Flushing area, long a visible structure from the bleachers Shea Stadium and elsewhere in the Queens neighborhood. Included in U-Haul's project is a space that will tell the story of the clock, including its restoration, and they hope to have a way for visitors from the public to see the timepiece. As Dispensa, who is from the area emphasized, "I really like that this is doing something for my hometown."
View of the interior scaffolding
Some clock debris in the space
Two of the clock faces
The center clock mechanism area that connects to the four faces
The U-Haul building
All photographs by the author.