TICKED OFF NO MORE

Albany City Hall's clock is fixed, and now nerves are calmer

JORDAN CARLEO-EVANGELIST STAFF WRITER
Section: Capital Region,  Page: D1

Date: Friday, July 23, 2010

ALBANY -- When Dave Weiss came to work for the city as an electrician nine years ago, he had certain expectations about what his job would entail.


Broken sewage ejector? No problem. Pool pump on the fritz? Piece of cake.


"I never thought I would be part of the Bureau of Antiquated Tower Clocks," Weiss said Thursday, a day after City Hall's landmark clock tower lurched to life for the first time since before Thanksgiving. "But I am now."


It's probably good that Weiss can laugh about his situation now. Otherwise he might cry.


Since about the first week in November, the clock hovering over lower Washington Avenue since the 1920s has been frozen at various times between 10 minutes to 9 o'clock and 25 minutes after the hour.


Weiss, one of three electricians on staff with the Department of General Services, landed the unenviable charge of fixing it, which turned out to be anything but clockwork.


The stilled timepiece became a regular target of acid criticism from Fred Dicker, the New York Post's state editor, a longtime city resident who used his daily morning radio show on Talk 1300 to lampoon it -- and, by extension, Mayor Jerry Jennings -- as a symbol government's failure to accomplish even the simplest things.


"I've been getting beat up about this clock for the past seven months," Weiss said, the relief audible in his voice. "Normally, I don't listen to Fred Dicker either, but once he started comparing my repair skills to somebody in BOCES, I started to get a little bit upset."


His boss at General Services urged him to stay out of it and let the mayor handle it -- advice he wisely heeded.


Weiss' best explanation for why the clock ground to a halt in the first place goes like this:


Re-setting it to account to for the "fall-back" autumn change for daylight saving time requires shutting down the clock's 24-year-old electric motor for exactly one hour.


Unbeknownst to anyone in the city, the drive shaft that powered the clock's east face had been continually rubbing against the concrete channel it passed through, stressing the gears and motor.


When he stopped the clock in November, Weiss suspects, the drive shaft halted at a point of particularly high friction and was unable to restart.


The resulting stress likely damaged the motor, which had been built by a French firm and installed at the direction of Mayor Thomas M. Whalen III.


That firm has since stopped making the motor, and a Connecticut company said that not only couldn't the mechanism be repaired but it would cost the city nearly $20,000 to replace the old motor with a "computer-controlled atomic-type clock."


On the air with Dicker Thursday, Jennings said that wasn't an option.


"It would take away from the character of the building," Jennings said of the 127-year-old City Hall, to which the clocks were added eight decades ago. "It wasn't money."


The hunt led Weiss to St. Louis-based Americlock, a successor to the British firm that overhauled the timepiece in the 1980s.


There, a man who worked on the Albany clock back then was able to repair the motor and recast the damaged gears. The final cost for parts: $780.


On Wednesday, Weiss ascended the tower's 71 steps and set the clock in motion.


It was still ticking, so to speak, Thursday morning when Dicker to took the airwaves across the street in the Capitol.


"It's been a long journey, Fred." Jennings told the host, "and I thank you for documenting it..."


"... For torturing you about it," Dicker interjected, adding later: "Now I'm going to start talking about the conditions of the streets in Albany."


Dicker congratulated the mayor and concluded the interview with a mock applause track, and then returned to the travails of state government.


Weiss and his co-workers had other business to attend to, including the light poles in Tricentennial Park and preparations for Alive at 5 in the Corning Preserve.


"He could care less about the trials and tribulations that we went through to get this thing repaired," Weiss said of Dicker, who declined to comment on the subject to the Times Union.


Jennings, however, seemed to grasp the complexity of the problem, Weiss said.


"He understood that wasn't a Timex that I could just take the battery out and throw another one in."


Oh, and one more thing.


Because the drive shaft would still grind against the concrete, only three of the clock's faces are connected to the refurbished motor.


As for the side that remains frozen in time, well, it faces the city of Rensselaer.


Reach Jordan Carleo-Evangelist at 454-5445 or at jcarleo-evangelist@timesunion.com