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New bells give Santa Barbara courthouse a ring of authenticity

Volunteers restoring the grand old clock at the city landmark made some surprising discoveries en route to replacing a tinkle with a peal.

June 17, 2012|By Steve Chawkins, Los Angeles Times
  • The 1929 Seth Thomas clock inside the bell tower at the Santa Barbara courthouse. A clock expert involved in its restoration oiled what needed oiling and fixed what needed fixing. But certain gears were oddly pristine: “It was like the day they rolled out of the factory,” he said. “They still had their finish. There was no wear on their teeth.”
The 1929 Seth Thomas clock inside the bell tower at the Santa Barbara courthouse.… (Michael Robinson Chavez,…)

For years, you could set your watch by the courthouse clock in Santa Barbara.

But the bells — well, you could barely count on them at all. From a tower atop one of the city's most visited sites, peals rang out every 15 minutes — or 14 minutes, or 17, or not at all. Sometimes they struck on the hour, sometimes not. It was as if Victor Hugo's famous hunchback had quit flinging himself from rope to rope, propped his feet on a gargoyle and started hitting the Bordeaux.

On top of all that, the sound was more tinkle than toll.

"It was ridiculous," said courthouse docent Rodney Baker. "It was like, 'Avon calling.' It was totally synthetic."

A richer sound in sync with a big clock didn't seem too much to expect, especially in a landmark building renowned for its grandeur. However, the task was as complicated as any case ever heard along the dim, cool corridors of the 83-year-old courthouse.

In the world of old bell towers, it turns out, all is not what meets the ear. And in a town that cherishes its history, restoring it is a goal that can be elusive — even if only by inches.

The tale of the tower starts four years ago with electrical engineer Mostyn Gale, an avid amateur horologist, or clock expert. Gale had become so fascinated by the courthouse clock that "as kind of a lark" he got permission from county architect Robert Ooley to maintain it.

On Saturday mornings, he would wedge himself into the dimly lighted storage closet that held the inner workings of the 1929 Seth Thomas: an assembly of golden gears clicking away in an upright, forest-green iron frame, connected by metal rods to the four huge dials outside.

"It was a fascinating, wonderful thing," he said.

Gale oiled what needed oiling and fixed what needed fixing. But certain gears were oddly pristine: "It was like the day they rolled out of the factory," he said. "They still had their finish. There was no wear on their teeth."

One day he made another astonishing find. Amid the room's clutter sat five dusty crates with shipping labels from 1929. Gale opened them, tearing through wads of vintage newspapers. Inside were five iron bell hammers, as pristine as the gears that were supposed to connect them to the bells that were supposed to toll for Santa Barbara.

Trouble is, there were no bells.

It wasn't any great secret, but neither was it something advertised by a city that embraces its past.

Nobody seems to knows exactly why no bells were installed. The Depression may have sidetracked plans for them. Someone may have realized they'd be too heavy for the tower, or, as was the case for Quasimodo, they would deafen tourists on the observation deck.

Santa Barbara is hardly unique. As it turns out, bells are a bit of smoke-and-mirrors in many churches and municipal buildings. While some have bells that are rung electronically, most have synchronized sound systems that broadcast recorded chimes, hymns or patriotic music.

"Nobody's really up there ringing bells" in most buildings, said Jim Verdin, whose family in Cincinnati has been making bells, tower clocks, electronic carillons and aluminum "shells" that resemble bells since 1842. With cutting-edge sound technology, he said, "the average person can't tell the difference."

In Santa Barbara, faux bells started pealing in 1977 — a touch of gravitas in a town that likes to add a dash of silver to its hair.

The city's trademark "Spanish" look — the white walls and red tile roofs that speak of a bygone day — came long after the Spanish left. After a devastating 1925 earthquake, city leaders stepped up a campaign to refashion an aging downtown with Spanish Revival architecture. They passed one of the nation's first architectural review codes in 1929.

"By the 1920s, very little remained of the 'real' past of Santa Barbara and its Spanish heritage" aside from the Santa Barbara Mission and perhaps 20 smaller structures, wrote Patricia Gebhard and Kathryn Masson in a 2001 history. "Yet these remnants ... provided the rationale upon which the city was remodeled in an authentic Spanish style."

In keeping with Santa Barbara's new look, the courthouse was built to appear old and European. With ornate mosaics, Latin inscriptions, arches, turrets and sunken gardens, it was modeled after a medieval Spanish castle. Tile plaques in the Hall of Records even commemorate royal visits, including one by Belgium's King Albert and Queen Elisabeth in 1919 — 10 years before the courthouse opened.

Still home to working courtrooms and legal offices, the courthouse has many local boosters, including David Bisno, an amateur historian and founder of a national program for senior education. Two years ago, Bisno led his class on the history of timekeeping into the junk-filled storeroom that housed the Seth Thomas.

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