On a busy strip of Jamaica Avenue in Queens, where vendors hawk cellphone cases outside shops selling off-price wigs, tattoo services and fungal-nail care, stands one of downtown Jamaica’s most dignified residents. This street-corner denizen is an ornate cast-iron sidewalk clock, more than a century old, attired with archaic formality like a proud codger who still wears his threadbare suit every day, even as the world passes him by.
The battered old clock hasn’t told time in years, it has endured at least two bouts of unfortunate facial reconstruction and until recently no one had any firm idea of its origins. Even after local leaders managed to find funding to restore the long-suffering timepiece, they were at a loss as to how to proceed because they could find no photos showing its original appearance. And without such documentation, it was hard to explain to the city landmarks commission, which has regulatory authority over the clock, how a historically appropriate restoration could be performed.
But a bit of detective work by historians of the arcane world of horology led to the unexpected discovery late last month that the clock was likely a rare surviving creation of an innovative 19th-century company that once sent precision timepieces around the world from a humming factory in the Clinton Hill neighborhood of Brooklyn.
Electric Time, a Massachusetts company that has restored antique sidewalk clocks on Steinway Street in Queens and outside Eataly on Madison Square in Manhattan, has been chosen to perform the Jamaica clock’s restoration, which is expected to be completed by June 30.
The double-faced timepiece, which stands 15 feet tall outside a Chase Bank at Union Hall Street, is crowned with a classical anthemion finial. The clock’s dented head, which may have suffered an unpleasant encounter with a truck, rests on a tapered, fluted column that rises from a rusting paneled base whose damaged access door is held shut with duct tape.
It is one of only seven city sidewalk clocks with landmark status and probably dates to the turn of the 20th century, when such showy public timekeepers were common around town, often installed as advertisements for adjacent stores. Business names were sometimes painted on the dials, and the landmarks commission believes that the Jamaica Avenue clock was installed outside No. 161-11 by Busch’s Jewelers.
But who manufactured the clock and what it originally looked like has been a longstanding mystery. The city’s short landmark designation report offers no evidence of which company made this particular machine, noting only that such clocks could be purchased from catalogs for about $600 and that the leading manufacturers in the east were the Seth Thomas Clock Company and the E. Howard clock company, which produced the surviving sidewalk clocks on Third Avenue near 85th Street and outside the Sherry-Netherland hotel on Fifth Avenue. But the Jamaica timepiece does not match any designs of those clock companies.
The Jamaica clock face has also been altered over time. The dials of early sidewalk clocks typically occupied the entire face, but by 1940, when the oldest known photograph of the Jamaica clock was taken, its full-face dial had been replaced by a smaller dial, surrounded by an outer ring with lettering on it — probably neon. The timepiece, then near a shoe store in the shadow of an elevated railway, was photographed from too far away to make out many details.
“The photo shows that the clock was modified when it was electrified, as many were in the 1930s,” said Jeremy Woodoff, a board member of Save America’s Clocks, a preservation group. The dials of the old clocks were generally made smaller because large hands were too heavy for the new electric movements to operate.
By the time the city gave the Jamaica clock landmark protection in 1981, the outer ring around its dial was adorned with the curving words “Tad’s Steaks,” rendered in neon.
But in 1989, the clock was altered again by the Greater Jamaica Development Corporation and moved across the avenue, to No. 161-10, apparently without the required landmarks commission review. The small dials were replaced and given nonhistorical brass numerals resembling the cheap house numbers sold at hardware stores. The neon “Tad’s Steaks” sign was removed from each face’s outer ring, which was replaced with a flat steel ring on which was painted “Jamaica Center.”
The clock’s current restoration plans were sparked by Thomas Crater, a crusading activist known for riding around Jamaica on his bicycle, spotting problems and firing off complaint emails to city agencies and elected officials.
“Tom felt that if the clock stopped, then it means the neighborhood is bad, that nobody cares enough to fix it,” said Jim Vaccaro, who manages quality control for the Greater Jamaica Development Corporation.
Though responsibility for the clock is murky, with neither the city nor any other entity claiming ownership, the Jamaica Center Business Improvement District took it upon itself to have the timepiece restored. Jennifer Furioli, the group’s executive director, secured $30,000 each from the city and from Councilman I. Daneek Miller. The local development corporation is managing the contract.
Electric Time was hired to conduct an initial diagnostic analysis of the timepiece, and Save America’s Clocks was brought in to help guide the project.
The central question was to which of the clock’s various incarnations it ought to be restored.
“Do you go back to the 1930s alteration, or to what it was like originally?” said Mr. Woodoff of Save America’s Clocks. And how could you restore its original appearance if you had no evidence for what the original dial looked like?
Mr. Woodoff had long been interested in the Jamaica clock, and had tried unsuccessfully to crowdsource its maker as early as 2015 on the online forum of a national clock collectors’ group. Then, in emails beginning last fall and Zoom calls this March, Tom Erb, Electric Time’s president, and clock experts from Save America’s Clocks batted around theories about the timepiece’s provenance.
“They were talking, talking, talking, and I could see the sparks going off as they were figuring things out,” Ms. Furioli said.
Finally, the mystery was solved when Mr. Erb and Mr. Woodoff, separately pursuing the same theory, both consulted reprints of a 1908 catalog of the Self-Winding Clock Company, a long-vanished Brooklyn firm that turned out to have produced sidewalk clocks quite similar to the one on Jamaica Avenue. It was a Eureka moment for both men.
Peering at a sidewalk clock model called the Standard, Mr. Woodoff was struck by how much the fluted, tapered post in the illustration resembled the Jamaica clock’s post. The bases and heads also shared similarities.
Spotting that telltale illustration was “a bit like identifying the painter of a formerly anonymous beloved picture,” Mr. Woodoff said.
For Mr. Erb, the most definitive common element was the saddle — the curved collar that joins the clock’s head to its post. At first he and his engineers thought the Jamaica saddle looked “like something someone had welded in the 1940s as a repair,” he said. “But when you look more closely, it’s a casting, so it’s original.”
The Self-Winding Clock Company was founded in 1886 by the oil men Charles Pratt and E.T. Bedford, the inventor Chester H. Pond, who had received a patent for a self-winding clock, and others.
The firm’s 1908 catalog noted that the key to its timepieces’ innovative self-winding action was that a fine spring was “automatically wound once every hour by a small electrical motor attached to the movement”; the electrical current for driving that motor was obtained from two small dry-cell batteries in the clock case. The clock would wind itself for at least a year.
The company partnered with Western Union on a time distribution service. Every hour, the correct time was transmitted over telegraph lines from the United States Naval Observatory in Washington, D.C., to subscribers’ Self-Winding clocks, which would then automatically move their hands to correct the time on their faces. The service cost a dollar a month.
Notable Self-Winding creations in New York included clocks at the original Pennsylvania Station, the Tiffany-glass clock on the pediment of Grand Central Terminal and the four-dial tower clock on the Metropolitan Life Building on Madison Square. The company also supplied clocks to the New York City subway system and the London Underground.
Self-Winding’s facility was on land owned by Mr. Pratt at the northeast corner of Willoughby Avenue and Grand Avenue, across Willoughby from the Pratt Institute, which was founded by Mr. Pratt and which to this day boasts a Self-Winding clock on its main building’s tower. The company continued to operate at that location even after the Pratt Institute purchased the lot from Mr. Pratt’s estate in 1897.
The firm bought the property from the institute in 1917 for $50,000, and three years later began putting up a new factory there. Built after designs by the architects Shampan & Shampan, the factory was on or near the site now occupied by the Pratt Institute’s Willoughby Residence Hall.
The timekeeper on Jamaica Avenue is the only extant sidewalk clock in the city made by the once mighty Self-Winding company, which was shuttered around 1970. Although details of the restoration are not yet finalized, the two new dials will occupy the full 36-inch-diameter clock faces, in keeping with the designs in the 1908 brochure.
The dials will probably be of backlit frosted white glass with black Arabic numerals, one of the options the company offered. The base, post and dented head will be repaired. And the clock will once again tell time, its hands propelled by new, electrically powered mechanisms. Accuracy will be assured by a receiver that obtains the correct time from small atomic clocks in Global Positioning System satellites.
“I think for every community, there is pride in the streetscape, pride in a sense of place, especially when you have a sense that something once stood so elegant,” said Ms. Furioli of the business improvement district. “The clock is an emotional touchstone, and people want to make sure their neighborhood is maintained.”