Inside the Broadway Clock

March 6, 2013

I first learned about the Broadway Clock Tower visit in one of a stack of quirky New York City books (you can find them at the Milstein Division of the main branch of the public library), and as far as I can remember, which is not too far, it was the only thing that particular book was good for. I had vague familiarity with the tower as old headquarters of the New York Life Insurance Company (between Worth and Leonard Streets: it’s now the Criminal Court), and had seen it, but the way you see city buildings that don’t involve you personally yet: a little like wallpaper.

That’s to say, I had overlooked a working four-faced stone clock flanked by a team of guardian eagles a dozen stories in the air. The author of the library book said that climbing up the tower and seeing the clock from the inside was one of his favorite things to do. Once a week, you have the opportunity to agree with him: every Wednesday morning at 9AM, the official clockmaster of New York City, Marvin Schneider, hoists the weights and oils the old machine. Because the clock is a landmark, you can make a visit while he does it. This is Marvin:

And this is an original bottle of tower clock oil.

Two things. First: climbing up the clock seems to have been a bit more of a thing a while back. For instance, it’s where Mickey Rourke (intercut with smoothly turning gears) jackhammers Kim Basinger in Nine 1/2 Weeks. “She was right there,” Marvin says reverently, pointing to around four o'clock.

Second, the building is haunted by one of the city’s weirdest riddles. The way we see the tower is not the way passersby in the early 20th century saw it. The stone clock house used to be capped by bronze atlases that shouldered a globe with a spreading eagle on top. Like this:

Every piece of this titanic sculpture—muscles, world, bird—disappeared sometime around 1947. That nobody knows where they ended up drives Marvin Schneider crazy. “If you find out,” he says, “you’d be solving the Big One.”