ON ARCHITECTURE- Tower power: Staunton's signature timepiece

Unlike Charlottesville– which is architecturally identified by Monticello or the Rotunda, buildings at a certain remove from the actual town– Staunton's architectural emblem is a downtown centerpiece, a building so unusual that the rest of Staunton seems to have grown up around it. We are, of course, talking about the Clock Tower Building on Beverley Street.

"When people want to depict downtown Staunton, they use the Clock Tower, and have for years," says Frank Strassler, Director of the Staunton Historic Foundation. "That tower has been used for more logos, t-shirts, and promotions than any other landmark in Staunton."

How true. Guess what illustrrated the Hook's 2004 cover story about Staunton?

Built in 1890 by architect S.W. Foulke, and remodeled by T.J. Collins around 1916, the Clock Tower is a shining example of Queen Anne Architecture, that reigning style of the industrial age that brought flamboyant and eccentric design to podunk little towns across America in the 1880s and '90s. This "castle-like" architecture– with its emphasis on fancy brickwork, turrets, and large bay windows– is evident all over Staunton. Indeed, three-story arched windows four bays wide run up the Beverley Street side of the building.

However, the design owes a lot to H.H. Richardson as well, whose own Richardsonian Romanesque style was developed in the 1870s and influenced everyone from Frederick Osterling to Frank Lloyd Wright.

In the best examples of Richardson's work– such as Trinity Church in Boston– massive towers anchor the corners of the building and extend above the roofline. The Clock Tower in Staunton isn't quite as ornate as the Church, nor is its facade as dark, but its tower impulse clearly springs from Richardsonian Romanesque.

Looking up at the Clock Tower building, one can imagine the industrialists at the time dreaming of cities, painting Medieval European scenes on the essentially blank canvas that was early America, and reaching far back into architecture's past to civilize the country's rawness.

Oddly enough, the Clock Tower was built to house the local YMCA, only the second one in Virginia at the time. It had a gym, a running track, a lending library, and various meeting rooms on its upper floors, and retail spaces at street level. It ceased to be a YMCA in 1914 when the organization moved to a larger building on Augusta Street.

T.J. Collins, who designed many buildings in Staunton, including the National Valley Bank, most likely remodeled the tower to accommodate a large department store facade. Although it's unknown what was there shortly after, a Woolworth's occupied the street-level space from the 1930s to the early 1980s.

Today, the ground floor houses a small convenience store and the Clock Tower Tavern. During remodeling in the late 1980s, most of the upper-floor rooms were turned into apartments. Yet most of the original pressed-tin ceilings and ornate Queen Anne trim work and window configurations remain.

Of course, the most interesting part of the building is the clock itself. According to Dean Sarnelle, who runs the Once Upon a Time Clock Shop in Staunton and who has been maintaining the clock for over a decade, it came from the E. Howard Clock Company in Roxbury, Massachusetts, founded in 1842 and still in business.

Although the original hand-winding mechanism and pendulum have been replaced by a motor, and a light on a timer illuminates the clock face at night, most of the clock still has its original parts– including the bell– and operates as it did over 120 years ago.

Even the modernized functions seem antiquated. According to Sarnelle, the motor is activated by a mercury switch. As the clock turns, the mercury tilts and eventually turns on a switch that turns on the motor, which pulls back the hammer and strikes the bell each hour.

"One time, I think it was about five years ago," says Sarnelle, as a cuckoo clock sounds in the background, "we had to take the whole thing apart and clean it. But other than that, we just grease the bearings and hand mechanisms once a year, adjust it for time changes, and set it back when there's a power outage."

It's obvious that Sarnelle takes pride in keeping the clock on Staunton's most prominent building running smoothly, even going so far as to install Plexiglas over the clock face when he discovered bullet holes in the glass. Sarnelle isn't sure how or when the clock was shot, but rather than remove or replace something original on the signature timepiece, he let the bullet holes remain.

In an age of new urbanism, where everyone seems to want to build new cities from scratch, it's nice to imagine Staunton's clock keeper still climbing across the roof to set the time by hand and grease the old gears. It makes the Clock Tower building more than just a historic relic to adorn logos and t-shirt: it's a functioning part of downtown that people depend on to keep time.


Timeless: Staunton's Clock Tower building has been gracing downtown since 1890.

PHOTO BY DAVE MCNAIR

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