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[Oct. 15th, 2008|03:21 pm]
New England Structures and Buildings



''I'm there every month, oiling it, and making sure nothing's wrong with it,'' said Paul Calantropo, the specialist who maintains South Station's tower timepiece. ''I'm there every month, oiling it, and making sure nothing's wrong with it,'' said Paul Calantropo, the specialist who maintains South Station's tower timepiece. (David L. Ryan/ Globe Staff)

Station clock takes timeout - Watch this: 110-year-old mechanism set for an overhaul

There are no manuals explaining how to fix the iconic clock atop South Station, just a professional tinkerer named Paul Calantropo. He spent yesterday in the station's dusty clock tower, oiling gears of the 110-year-old timepiece that he plans to take apart - one pin and gear shaft at a time - and then painstakingly manufacture any worn-out parts in his Downtown Crossing workshop. "Every single piece has to be handmade," he said. "There's no parts available."

Calantropo understands the gravity of his task. The clock harkens to another era, when the precision of its hands, moving around cast-iron Roman numerals, branded Boston as a modern and punctual city. Though once fairly common, such clocks have become a rarity, with only a handful of craftsmen capable of fixing them.

The clock is now more a piece of nostalgia than it is a display of technology, but it must remain accurate so the BlackBerry-toting commuters in the Financial District don't miss their trains. "I'm there every month, oiling it, and making sure nothing's wrong with it," said Calantropo, who also makes twice-annual adjustments to accommodate daylight saving time.

Tomorrow, he'll dismantle it and bring back all 400 pounds of gears, shifts, and plates to his workshop in the Jewelers Exchange Building at Downtown Crossing for an overhaul. Once there, he'll put the clock back together again to evaluate what it needs. Then he'll take it apart again and create new screws, bolts, and teeth for the ones that have worn down. He'll remove the rust, polish the shaft, correct the bearings.

Then he'll rebuild it for a second time, test it yet again, and dismantle it before bringing it back to the clock tower.
In the meantime, crews will repair the worn bricks and rusty steel rafters in the 30-foot-tall clock tower, which is now leaking and damaging the clock. Yesterday, as Calantropo climbed the tower's narrow staircase, bits of rust rained below his every step.

During six weeks of repairs, the clock's original 12-foot-wide face, made of a thick frosted glass, will remain in its place near the top of the train station facade, below the 80-ton granite eagle overlooking the Financial District. But the hands will remain frozen at the noon position while Calantropo tinkers with the rest of the timepiece in his workshop.

Calantropo has refurbished plenty of similar old clocks, as far away as Bermuda and as close as the 1766 clock on top of the Old South Meeting House near his office. (He says that clock needs repairs again, but he hasn't heard from the custodians.) Two decades ago, he brought the South Station clock back to working order after decades of disrepair. "I was a watchmaker," said Calantropo, 57, who has been fixing big clocks for 30 years. "So this was an extension of the same field, just bigger."

The South Station clock was made in Roxbury, by the former E. Howard Clock Company, at a time when there were thousands of similar clocks at public buildings around New England. Its escapement, which, like Big Ben's, relies on gravity to keep the pendulum swinging, is also a relic. It's the largest one like it in New England, says Equity Office, the company that runs South Station under a lease with the state.

The escapement, which separates the weight of the 250-pound metal pendulum from the movement of the clock, prevents the hands from moving backward when snow and ice assault them.

Another man, Jeffrey Jackman, has been winding the clock by hand twice a week, turning a heavy crank about 90 times, since 1988. It's a point of pride for Jackman, South Station's property manager, even if it does tire him out.
"It's part of history," he said. "She's a gem, all right."

At least one of the clock's teeth, from the smallest of its five gears, is chipped and needs replacing. Calantropo will use a lathe and a milling machine at his workshop - a storehouse of old ticking and tocking devices covered with glass domes - to fabricate the replacement parts. Equity Office will pay Calantropo $18,000 for the labor-intensive job. Calantropo said it would probably cost $250,000 to build a new clock like the one in South Station. Similar old clocks can sell for between $20,000 and $50,000, though there wouldn't be many suitable buyers, he said. "They're priceless, and I don't want to say worthless, all at once," he said. "Because you have to have a station to display it."

By Noah Bierman, Globe Staff | October 15, 2008
Noah Bierman can be reached at nbierman@globe.com.
SRC http://www.boston.com/news/local/massachusetts/articles/2008/10/15/station_clock_takes_timeout/