Noon mark: Mall to get new $25,000 clock, sundial
Back in August 2009, the City launched a design contest for the creation of a clock on the Downtown Mall that would honor Charlottesville's relationship to its three Sister Cities and cost less than $25,000. Since then, a couple of things have changed: we've added another Sister, and it appears the clock will actually get built.
If you're having trouble keeping track, the Sister cities would be Besan§on, France; Pleven, Bulgaria; Poggio a Caiano, Italy; and the newcomer, Winneba, Ghana.
At the time of the contest announcement, officials weren't sure if the winning design would get built, a reminder of the 2007 design contest that cost $150,000 in taxpayer funds to generate ideas for the development of the Water Street parking lots where nothing ever got built.
In November 2009, a jury of architects, artists, and business people selected a winning clock: a 12-foot tall granite obelisk called the "Meridian Clock." Envisioned by local designer Edward P. Smith and headed for a location between the Transit Center and City Hall, it would include various timepieces including a noon mark, a simple sundial to note each day's noon.
"I'm an amateur astronomer and geographer," says Smith, who took home the $1,500 prize. "That summer I had been messing around with types of noon marks and using the sun to find True North when I happened to read about the competition. I thought, 'This could work.'"
In addition to second and third place designs by Paul Tassell of the Gaines Group and Michael Stoneking, who received $1,000 and $500 for their efforts, there was also a '"people's choice" award winner by a trio of local designers–- Bill Hess, Jim Respess, and Bob Anderson–-selected after a public viewing at City Space. That one would have included four video screens showing real-time images from the four Sister Cities. Tassell's design featured a clock high atop a slim brick tower across from the Landmark hotel site, while Stoneking's clock sat atop a stout kiosk. There were ten entries in all.
Two and a half years ago, Neighborhood development chief Jim Tolbert suggested that construction costs could be covered by "left-over Downtown Mall re-bricking funds." Last month, however, City Council decided to build Smith's clock with a $25,000 budget Tolbert now says will come from a percentage of the city's public art account.
The Meridian Clock [7mg PDF] will be placed on a meridian line, a one-foot-wide strip of granite built into the brick surface that will run true North and South, all the way from the stairs of the Transit Center to a planting bed near the entrance to City Hall. It will operate like a sundial that marks winter and summer solstices, spring and fall equinoxes, and months of the year. There will also be two electric, analog clocks embedded atop of what Smith calls a "decidedly modern" and "deceptively simple" obelisk.
The structure will include seals identifying the Sister Cities, but it's the solar-powered "teaching tool" aspect that seems to thrill Smith the most.
"I'm very excited," says Smith. "While public sundials are fairly common, as far as I can tell, this type of noon mark will be wholly unique to Charlottesville."
Of course, no structural change on the Mall would be complete without the Board of Architectural Review making their mark on it.
"Ed is currently working on final details to bring back for BAR approval," says city design planner Mary Joy Scala, who says construction will begin after the 2011 Charlottesville Pavilion music season, "but it should look the same."
According to BAR vice chair Syd Knight, the Board asked Smith to "refine a few details" and offer more specific information about the color and finish of the granite and the placement of the Sister City seals.
"Once the details are resolved," says Knight, "I think this will be a very nice addition to the Mall."
Others aren't quite as impressed.
Back in 2009, frequent Mall visitor Kevin Cox thought it was a "poor way to spend 25k," but predicted that the City "would do it anyway."
"It's a silly idea for an expensive, archaic monument," says Cox today. "I think they ought to erect a smartphone tower instead." Cox also expresses concern about the "chaotic architectural themes" on the east end of the Mall and thinks the obelisk will add significantly to the overall clash of design styles.
"There are a number of bold and distinctive elements already in place at that end of the Mall," says Knight, "but I think that the basic design of the clock fits its context. One of the strengths of the Mall’s design is that it is simple and bold enough to accommodate strong ideas without being overwhelmed."
However, given the current state of the economy, Charlottesville native Toni Roades isn't especially impressed by the clock project either.
"Even if my property taxes hadn't been raised 15 percent the year that City property values plunged 15 percent, and even if my household's City tax burden didn't exceed 20 percent of my household's net income, and even if I hadn't fallen seven times in the last dozen or so years because of ill-maintained and/or non existent City sidewalks," she writes in an email, "I would be appalled at this truly World-Class waste of public money and civic capital."
Updated: 1/27/2011 10:47am