High Noon

Credit: John Russell

Eagle-eyed observers and Luddites accustomed to marking time by a campus landmark were the first to notice something amiss in early June. The clock atop Kirkland Hall’s tower had stopped keeping time.

Until then, the clock’s motor, installed in 1966, had run continuously for nearly half a century, says Paul Young, a facilities manager for campus plant operations and the clock’s caretaker for the past 37 years.

“The clock has what we call a sewing machine motor—it’s a little bitty motor attached to a lot of gears,” he says. “These gears have been turning 24/7, and it’s to the point where they’ve just worn down.”

Today’s four-faced clock in the Kirkland tower is not the first. When the building—then called Old Main and boasting a pair of matching towers—burned in a devastating 1905 fire, the original clock was destroyed. During reconstruction of the building, only the south tower was rebuilt.

The children of Vanderbilt faculty who lived on campus organized a fundraising effort to replace the clock’s bell, which bears the inscription: “Gift of the children of Vanderbilt University—1906—Ring in the Nobler Mode of Life.”

For now Young has set the hands at 12 o’clock. The bell, which is powered by a separate electronic mechanism, continues to ring on the hour.

Young isn’t sure when the clock will be running again. Companies that service such clocks are increasingly rare, and he wants to consult with several to find the best solution—preferably one that requires little maintenance. By Young’s count, it’s 108 steps from Kirkland’s basement to its main roof, from which the tower rises. From the tower it’s 94 steps up to the bell’s location, and another 32 from the bell to the tower’s top.

Read about a Vanderbilt alumnus’ journey up the Kirkland tower.