Opened in 1898, the Clock Tower Building was one of the many gilded wonders created in Manhattan by the architectural team of McKim, Mead & White. It was capped, as the name suggests, with a beautiful mechanical clock, the city’s largest, with “more than a dozen gears, ranging in diameter from a half inch to two feet…attached to a hammer that hourly strikes a 5,000-pound bronze bell.”
The home office of New York Life Insurance Company until they moved uptown in 1927 to their new headquarters in Madison Square, the building housed other offices until it was purchased by New York City in 1967 for use by various municipal agencies and courts. But by the 1970s the clock tower itself, if not the building, had been long abandoned in that peculiar New York habit of forgetting its architectural treasures. The clock itself had stopped working, the glass was broken, and the clock tower had been left to molder.
In 1972 the space just below the clock—originally planned as architect Stanford White’s entertaining room, before he was murdered for “entertaining” the murderer’s wife—was turned into the Clocktower Gallery, part of alternative space movement leader Alanna Heiss’s efforts to find new unusual art spaces in New York City. The now legendary Clocktower Gallery brought artists in close contact with the clock, and many incorporated it into their art, including one artist who hung naked from the clock and bathed himself with a hose. Later, the gallery would also become the broadcast center for an art-focused internet radio station.
Happily, the old clock found new life in 1979 when municipal workers Marvin Schneider, Eric Reiner, and George Whaley convinced the city to let them repair it. Despite having little in the way of horological experience, they succeeded and today Schneider is the city’s clockmaster—the first in many decades. Every Wednesday morning, Schneider would make a house call to the Clock Tower Building and hoist two 800-pound weights whose slow descent would power the clock for the week. Visitors to the art gallery could climb a spiral staircase to view the workings of the now perfectly-operating timepiece.
Unfortunately, like so many other New York City attractions, after 9/11 the city-owned clock tower was made off-limits to visitors. Even more unfortunate, the Clocktower Gallery was forced to close in 2013 when the city decided to sell the building to developers.
Today, the Clock Tower Building is surrounded by scaffolding as a five-year condominium conversion finally nears completion. Preservationists were horrified in 2015 when they learned that the developers intended to electrify the 19th century clock and turn the clock tower, a designated interior landmark, into a triplex penthouse (thus forever cutting off its access to the public). After a two-year legal battle, a court ruled in favor of the preservationists and the penthouse plans were scrapped.
If you’ve got a few million dollars to spare, you can now purchase your very own apartment in the spectacular Clock Tower Building. And maybe, just maybe, the clock tower itself will someday once again be open to visitors. In the meantime, admire the Gilded Age wonder as you pass by on Broadway and see if you can catch a glimpse of that wonderful clock 13 stories up.
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Manhattan may have name-brand recognition and Brooklyn a certain cache, but Queens is the city’s largest and most diverse borough. Join us, October 4-7, to dig into Queens’ rich neighborhood life.