Four members of a restoration team work on the Hay & Peabody clock, one of 80 street clocks produced by Seth Thomas Clock Company, on Congress Street on Friday. The team, which has six members who are all members of the National Association of Watch and Clock Collectors, are working on the historic clock at cost. Derek Davis/Staff Photographer Buy this Photo

The Hay and Peabody Clock, a towering ornament of Portland’s early 20th-century splendor that had deteriorated into a crumbling eyesore a century later, has been restored and will keep time again soon on upper Congress Street.

With decades of rust knocked off and its cast-iron structure resurfaced with durable dark green paint, the 18-foot clock tower was placed on a new pedestal outside The Francis hotel in Portland’s West End last week. The clockworks have been restored and are being reinstalled, and the structure will be rededicated in a small ceremony in late October, said David Swardlick, an investor in The Francis and one of several Portland business people who tackled the restoration effort.

The clock tower before the restoration. Photo courtesy of David Swardlick

Greater Portland Landmarks listed the tower, built by the Seth Thomas Clock Co. of Connecticut and installed in 1925 by the Hay and Peabody Funeral Home, as one of its “places in peril” in 2017. The Francis, a boutique hotel, opened in 2017 in the building formerly occupied by Hay and Peabody, at 747 Congress St.

“It was so close to crumbling,” Swardlick said of the clock tower. “It was beginning to lean over and was just rusting away. The door to the cabinet was hanging open. It was a miracle most of the original clock parts were still in there. We thought, ‘This has to be restored.’ It should be shining monument to the history and beauty of this section of Congress Street and downtown Portland. It took us a few years to figure it out, but we are so excited we were able to get it done.”

Though still obscured by scaffolding, the restored clock tower’s grandeur is evident, especially at night when its four clock faces are lit and the tower becomes a West End beacon. It’s a top-heavy structure, with a 1,500-pound ball housing the four clock faces. The mechanics of the clock are encased below, and the structure is supported by an internal central post. Among its distinguishing features are four lion heads near the base of the clock faces.

It was among 80 street clocks that Seth Thomas manufactured, but one of only a few with a combination mechanical clockwork and electric motor, according to Greater Portland Landmarks. The Francis building, which was built in 1881, and the clock are part of the Congress Street Local Historic District, designated in 2009 and certified a National Register Historic District in 2010. The hotel property was vacant after the funeral home closed in 2005 until the hotel opened three years ago. The Francis is named after its architect, Francis Fassett of Bath, who designed many West End residences, as well as the Baxter Building and the original Maine Medical Center building.

Jonathan Taggart of Taggart Objects Conservation of Georgetown restored the tower and all its parts, and horologists from Maine Chapter 89 of the National Association of Watch and Clock Collectors restored the clockworks.

Taggart, who does restoration work around the country and has helped conserve other prominent Portland landmarks like the “Our Ladies of Victories” sculpture in Monument Square, said he was pleased with the result of the clock tower project and is especially happy with the paint color, which looks almost black in low light and a rick, deep green in sunlight. Before the restoration, the tower had been painted black, and Taggart thinks its original color was brown.

The green distinguishes the tower, he said. “You know conservators, nothing is perfect in their eye. You always see things you wished you had done better or wished you had done different,” he said. “You’re always so close to it, your face is so close to it. But I was so thrilled when I stepped back and looked at it.”

He told himself, “Damn, that looks good.”

Conservator Jonathan Taggart in his shop with pieces of the clock tower. Photo courtesy of David Swardlick

The project cost about $50,000 and was paid for by the owners and developers of The Francis hotel and Bramhall Row, a condo community that adjoins The Francis, as well residents of the condos and the developers of the planned Longfellow Hotel, another boutique hotel that will be built across the street on the site of a former gas station in 2021. In addition to being an investor in The Francis, Swardlick is a partner in the townhouses and the planned hotel.

Sarah Hansen, executive director of Greater Portland Landmarks, said the clock tower project highlights the importance and impact of the Places in Peril program, which is designed to bring awareness to the issues facing historic sites, landscapes, structures and neighborhoods and to collaborate on solutions. “This project is a fantastic example of that happening,” she said. “The owners of The Francis realized just how important and unique this clock is to Portland and especially the neighborhood, and developed a collaborative restoration plan.”

In addition to Swardlick, this project involved Tony DeLois, Nate DeLois and Jeff Harder, who own The Francis; Joe DeLois, one of the Bramhall Row developers; and Center West LLC, which is developing the hotel across the street.

Bids for the project came in between $65,000 and more than $100,000, Swardlick said. With volunteer labor – Swardlick thanked the local clock experts and Hebert Construction – and favorable pricing from Taggart, the final price will come in at less than $50,000. The previous owners tried to sell the clock, but were prevented from doing so by Portland’s Historic Preservation Ordinance, Hansen noted.

The clock tower was removed a year ago and has been sitting in pieces in Taggart’s shop since. The biggest challenge was drilling and rethreading screws and screw holes, Taggart said. The entire structure was heavily rusted, especially on the inside where components met and held water. As rust accumulated, it attacked the fasteners, which corroded. “I have a jar here in my shop, one of those square quart peanut jars, and it is probably is half-filled with fasteners that came out that had to be replaced. But other than the fasteners, I was able to reuse pretty much everything,” he said.

As replacements, Taggart used silica bronze fasteners, which are resistant to corrosion and durable in a marine environment. That will make it easier for people restoring the clock a century from now, he said, and it could be 30 years before the clock tower needs to be painted again. “It will never look like it did before the restoration,” he promised.

That’s good news for the cultural fabric of Portland. The clock tower had been an important part of Portland’s streetscape for many years, until it was so terribly neglected that it started to crumble.

“It was so dark and dreary that I think people stopped looking at it,” Swardlick said. “And now, with this complete restoration, it’s being prepared to shine for the next 100 years.”

A pair of runners pass under the Hay & Peabody clock on Congress Street on Friday. Derek Davis/Staff Photographer Buy this Photo


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