Restoring Antique Clock Towers

History, Hometown Heroes, People, Traditions
on December 25, 2005

At the stroke of midnight on Dec. 31, historic tower clocks across the nation will ring in the New Year, thanks to the Balzer Family Clock Works of Freeport, Maine (pop. 7,800). Since 1985, Rick Balzer, with wife, Linda, and son, Chris, has restored more than 100 landmark timepieces whose enormous dials have cheered holiday revelers for more than a century.

The Balzers are among a handful of tower-clock restorers in North America and the only ones who custom-build large pendulum-regulated timepieces. Their restorations prod students at Harvard, Yale and Duke universities and pace workers in New York City, Grand Rapids, Mich., and Sapporo, Japan.

The Balzers’ reputation is such that they need no sign on their workshop, tucked in their home on a quiet residential street in Freeport. A door at the rear of the garage opens to reveal dozens of small antique clocks awaiting repair. Several large clock mechanisms, each one a chest-high kinetic sculpture of brass wheels, steel shafts, pinions and levers, sit atop graceful curved iron frames.

“In these, you have longevity, beauty and education,” says Rick, 58, pointing to the century-old clockworks which, he adds, embody the genius of pendulum clock designers Galileo and Christiaan Huygens, the persistence of chronometer inventor John Harrison, and the ingenuity of 19th-century clockmakers Edward Howard and Seth Thomas.

A former bank officer, Rick turned his hobby into a career in 1978. He worked strictly on small timepieces until 1985 when he restored a 128-year-old schoolhouse clock in Gray, Maine. Word of his expertise traveled.

“At that time, there were a lot of dead towers around,” says Linda, 60, the shop’s business manager.

The late 19th century launched the heyday of American clock tower construction. Large timepieces, symbols of new priorities in the Industrial Age, were mounted on churches, railroad stations, banks and city halls. After decades of neglect, the clocks typically were electrified, their pendulums and large gears amputated.

Rick rebuilds the superior mechanisms to their original condition, replicating parts on antique gear-cutting machines. Chris, 35, helps dismantle the clocks and lug pieces weighing as much as 150 pounds down winding stairways and into the family’s station wagon for transport to Freeport. Restorations cost from $13,000 to $125,000, depending on the condition of each clock, which requires regular maintenance sometimes performed by Chris’ wife, Kathryn.

When Rick and Chris reassemble a clock, they often place the beautiful and mesmerizing mechanism in a permanent display case on a lower floor. A rod extends to the clock face and moves the hands. “It changes the public attitude toward the timepiece if they can see it,” Rick says. “It becomes an educational tool. And if it’s in front of them, they take care of it. It’s easy in subzero weather to talk yourself out of climbing an icy ladder into a tower.”

The Balzers are “national treasures” for rescuing superbly crafted artifacts of American history, says Donald Saff, an authority on large timepieces and senior curator of the Guggenheim Museum in New York.

“Rick’s understanding is from the fundamentals on up, and it’s combined with an enthusiasm and energy that is always brought to the work,” Saff says. “They are faithful to the originals, right down to the shape of the screw heads and surface finishes. There’s a mission to what they do. There isn’t anybody else in the field who compares.”

Sandy Selesky, building manager at Harvard University’s Center for European Studies, agrees. Once a month, she dusts and oils Harvard’s only remaining mechanized tower clock, a 1919 E. Howard refurbished by the Balzers six years ago.

“When I got this job, one of the things I was most excited about was being able to take care of the clock,” she says, “and I love it even more now.”

Among the Balzers’ recent projects is a custom-built, 700-pound clock for the University of Arkansas in Fayetteville. The timepiece was created for the 1875 Old Main building, a Victorian gem that’s the heart of the campus, and will be installed this spring, filling the clock tower’s once-blank circles with cast bronze dials.

“It’s an instant landmark,” Rick says. “Is anybody making historic landmarks anymore? If you can do it, shouldn’t you?”

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