To clock enthusiasts, Portland doesn't rock; it ticks

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PORTLAND — Your time has almost come if you’ve been counting the minutes until the return of the iconic clock that stood in Monument Square since 1975.

For the past three months, the landmark has been missing as it undergoes repair. But it could be reinstalled as soon as late August.

The city-owned clock had deteriorated and grown rusty, and stopped functioning about three years ago. With no city funds to repair it, the clock told the correct time only twice a day.

But in 2012, a collaboration between the Portland Rotary, the city, Portland’s Downtown District and others raised $25,000 to pay for fixing the clock’s works and post, installing a new foundation and ongoing maintenance.

Maine College of Art students decorated the clock face with temporary works of art for several months, and some of the designs have been sold to help meet the cost of the project.

Now work on the clock is “essentially done,” Rotary President Cyrus Hagge said on Tuesday. He said he expects the foundation will be built soon and that the restored clock will be officially unveiled in September.

While the Monument Square clock is absent, Portlanders can rely on plenty of other public timepieces. They include a similar street clock near Bramhall Square, and “tower” clocks that adorn the sides and roofs of schools, churches and other buildings.

Portland is home to more tower clocks than any community in the state, according to Donn Lathrop, a clock historian and restorer who helped catalogue information about the more than 130 tower clocks that have stood in Maine.

In fact, a half dozen tower clocks keep time along a stretch of Congress Street less than a mile long – seven, if you include the huge digital clock atop the Time and Temperature Building.

But Lathrop didn’t catalogue that one.

“It’s just a cold, scientific bit of apparatus. It doesn’t have same romance as a traditional tower clock,” he said. “It doesn’t tick.”

The clock atop City Hall is one of the city’s most well known. Others are more historic, such as the First Parish Church clock at 425 Congress St. It dates to 1802, and is the state’s oldest.

Many clocks in the belfries of school buildings have hurried generations of children to class. In Portland, clocks can be found at the former North School – now an apartment complex at 248 Congress St. – and at Deering High School, the only tower clock off the peninsula.

Clocks occupy nearly every corner of Congress Square. Often unnoticed, a small clock overlooks passersby from the wedge-shaped Hay Building between Congress and Free streets. In the southwest corner of the square, a clock surmounts the four-story Schwartz Building at 600 Congress St.

On the northeast corner, Congress Square Plaza is home to the remnants of the tower clock that once stood at Portland’s Union Station. The tower and the station were demolished in 1961, but the clock face and works have been preserved inside a small shelter since 1982. It’s unclear how the clock may be affected by the proposed sale of much of the plaza to developers of the former Eastland Park Hotel, which adjoins the plaza.

Lathrop said the popularity of tower clocks is partly due to the important function they filled.

“Tower clocks were everyone’s pocket watch,” he said. But solders in World War II became accustomed to using military wristwatches, and the convenient, inexpensive watches soon caught on. Tower clocks became almost obsolete, and many fell into disrepair.

But Lathrop sees interest in the clocks returning, and said they should be “venerated. They take you from the past into the future.”

On a recent Saturday, none of the clocks in Portland appeared to be keeping exactly the same time.

But Matt Smith, a North Deering resident who’s lived in the city all his life, said he wasn’t concerned.

“I kind of miss the Monument Square clock, and the other clocks downtown are like landmarks,” he said. “But when I need to know the time, I look at my iPhone.”

William Hall can be reached at 781-3661 ext. 106 or [email protected]. Follow him on Twitter: @hallwilliam4.

Sidebar Elements

The tower clock at the First Parish Church on Congress Street in downtown Portland is the state’s oldest, dating to 1802.