After 47 years, Kirkland clock winds down

Clock will be restored to working order

The clock on the Kirkland Hall tower is stopped at 12 o'clock. (John Russell/Vanderbilt)
The clock on the Kirkland Hall tower is stopped at 12 o'clock. (John Russell/Vanderbilt)

UPDATE, Aug. 20: On Aug. 2, the hands were removed from the Kirkland Hall tower clock and shipped to Verdin Bells & Clocks in Cincinnati,Ohio, to be retrofitted for a new shaft. Since the job is a custom build and the hands were in worse shape than expected, Verdin was unable to meet its estimated completion date of Aug. 15, reports Plant Operations facilities manager Paul Young. The new estimated date for completion is “sometime in September,” according to Verdin officials.

“I will continue to be in constant contact with the Verdin company to stress the importance of the clock to the Vanderbilt community,” Young said. “The clock will continue to ring. I want to thank everyone in the Vanderbilt community for their patience in this matter.”

Original story posted June 19, 2013:

Eagle-eyed observers and those used to telling time by a campus landmark were the first to notice that something was amiss.

The clock atop Kirkland Hall’s tower stopped keeping time last week. Until then, the clock’s motor, installed in 1966, had run continuously for nearly half a century, according to Paul Young, facilities manager in Plant Operations and the clock’s caretaker for the past 37 years.

The "heart" of the Kirkland Hall clock. (Paul Young/Vanderbilt)
The "heart" of the Kirkland Hall clock. (Paul Young/Vanderbilt)

The problem—quite simply—is age, said Young, who refers to the motor and gears that power the clock as its “heart.”

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

For now, Young has set the hands at 12 o’clock. The bell, which is powered by a separate electronic mechanism—what Young calls the clock’s “brain”—continues to ring on the hour. His next step is to consult with Verdin Bells & Clocks of Cincinnati, Ohio, which installed the Kirkland clock in 1966, as well as similar companies.

“[lquote]It may be to the point where we have to give the clock a whole new heart,” Young said.[/lquote] That would include replacing the worn gears if they’re still available, or fabricating new ones.

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 fire in 1905, the original clock was destroyed. “The beloved clock in the south tower was engulfed in flames but survived just to the noon hour, struck a desperate 30 times, and then fell into the rubble,” wrote Paul Conkin, Distinguished Professor of History, Emeritus, in Gone with the Ivy, his 1985 history of Vanderbilt.

The bell in the Kirkland Hall tower. (Vanderbilt University)
The bell in the Kirkland Hall tower. (Vanderbilt University)

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.”

As the clock’s faithful caretaker, Young is one of few people to lay eyes on the inscription over the years.

“When I came to Vanderbilt, a gentleman I worked with was the caretaker of the clock, and I became his apprentice,” he explained. “I started out in the electrical department of the university, and it was the job of the electrical department to maintain the clock.”

Young is now a facilities manager for another area of campus. “Kirkland is not one of the buildings that I oversee, but since I have a history with the clock and know it well, they’ve just left the clock portion of Kirkland to me,” he said. Young is now teaching the current electrician for Kirkland Hall the ways of the clock.

One requirement of the job is accessing the clock. By Young’s count, it’s 108 steps from Kirkland’s basement to its main roof, from which the tower rises. It’s 94 steps up the tower 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.

The clock usually doesn’t require much maintenance, Young said. The gears are oiled about once a year. The mechanism that sounds the bell was updated and replaced in 2006. Young also manually rings the bell as part of memorial observances, as he did last December when the bell was rung 26 times for the victims of the Newtown, Conn., shootings a week after the tragedy.

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. He plans to exercise the same patience that he has shown the Kirkland clock for nearly four decades.

“I’ve babied it,” he said. “I’ve told the young guy who’s helping me now, ‘You’ve got to know this stuff. This is going to be yours.’ ”

Make note of these additional construction projects at Kirkland Hall:

  • A duct bank is being installed in the ground near Kirkland’s first-floor front entrance. The trench will cross over to the sidewalk area nearby. The project began June 19 and will last approximately three weeks.
  • Plaster in Kirkland’s stairwells is being repaired and repainted, including the rear stairwell near Alumni Hall. Work should last about a week. Watch for scaffolding.
  • The sidewalks and parking area between Kirkland and Alumni halls is being reworked. Kirkland’s back door will be locked, but the ground-floor side entrance (handicap/delivery entrance) will be open. Work will continue for approximately two weeks.