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Tock of the Town

Nostalgia: Orange County's tower clocks, some more than a century old, are finding their time has come--again.

February 28, 1996|BENJAMIN EPSTEIN | SPECIAL TO THE TIMES

Public clocks are back.

Big time.

Last year's graduating class of Chapman University in Orange donated a street clock to the school. Restoration of the 1930s Stedman Jewelers Clock on Harbor Boulevard in Fullerton is being funded by the city's redevelopment agency. Community efforts are underway to restore the 80-year-old William H. Spurgeon Building clock on 4th Street in Santa Ana.

Why all the fuss over big tickers?

"Time and temperature lighting up on the side of a building--it's not the same as a street clock with hands and a face up in a tower," said Phil Birgandi, an Orange history buff now living in Hemet.

There have been street clocks in downtown Orange since the 1880s, Birgandi said. One of the two now at the circular Orange Plaza is free standing, while the other, added as part of a 1982 remodel, is attached to the Swift & Swift building. (The owners replaced its modern facade with a more historic style.)

The truly old clocks on the Plaza are gone--which isn't to say they're not still in the county. The clock that had stood in front of Huff-Rice Jewelers since the 1920s, for instance, now resides in Laguna Beach.

Folks in both towns were all wound up over the move.

Laguna Beach florist Jack Eschbach bought the 15-foot clock in 1975, but the powers-that-were in Orange didn't want to see it go, said Dan Kenney, a former Laguna Beach mayor now living in Redstone, Colo.

The excavation permit was denied.

"It was legitimately sold, but somebody tried to renege on the transaction," Kenney recalled. So a Laguna Beach contingent went to Orange under cover of darkness to claim its property.

"Jack pretty much engineered it," Kenney said. "He and some others went up there, got it and somehow transported it to Laguna Beach."

The clock was soon installed in front of Eschbach's flower store.

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After Eschbach died in 1984, the clock fell into disrepair and stopped running. Kenney initiated city efforts to restore it.

"Jack was kind of a visionary," Kenney said. "When everyone was going plastic because it was new, and aluminum because it was new, Jack was saying we need to preserve things that will make us a little different from the towns around us. He was right. By preserving the village charm, that's exactly what happened."

Thanks to touches such as Eschbach's clock, Kenney said, "Laguna Beach has come to exemplify historical values."

The city now owns and maintains the cast-iron clock, which is bolted to the sidewalk.

*

James Espy of the National Assn. of Watch and Clock Collectors, who helped locate and restore the clock that students recently gave to Chapman University, says it is identical to the clock in front of Blackman's Ltd. Jewelers in Newport Beach for more than 20 years.

Both clocks were made by E. Howard of Boston and date from the 1850s. Both are 14 feet tall; the diameter of the double faces is about 3 feet.

When Bruce Blackman bought his clock--for next to nothing--it had stood unused for quite some time and needed total renovation. He enlisted the aid of friends and other interested parties.

"It took lots of hours of labor," Blackman said, "but it was a fun project. The laminated wood was full of dry rot. A cabinetmaker who rented space from a friend of mine [replaced] that for nothing. The bottom of the case didn't have windows--we milled those out and put in beveled glass. It turned into a community project."

One good renovation deserves another. Several years ago, Blackman was approached by a man who had rescued the movement from a similar street clock, made by E. Howard around 1890; it had been smashed by a truck. Blackman let him take the Lido clock apart to make molds. The hit-and-run victim is now alive and well and running in a front yard in north San Diego County.

"There was a period when street signs and clocks were passe," Blackman said. "But people are always checking their own clocks with ours. It's not electric, it's an old fashion windup thing, and if I forget to wind it, people call."

Blackman hopes it'll be there for a long time.

"The weight alone that runs this clock is 107 pounds," he said. "That's a big block of lead. This clock would go through sleet and snow and ice and everything else."

*

These clocks are survivors, all right, and it figures that a lifeguard would have just such a story.

Marine safety Capt. Lynn Hughes, in charge of maintaining the clock at San Clemente Marine Safety Headquarters until last year, said his most vivid memory of the clock after more than 20 years on the job involves a twister.

"The tower that supports the two faces--one face points south, the other points north--has a hatch on it," Hughes explained. "It's normally quite secure, well-anchored down.

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