Education

Cornell College clock being restored to continue keeping time

Clock inside King Chapel, installed in 1882, to be restored

Chuck Roeser (top) and Cornell College facilities technician Dustin Burnett watch Tuesday as Roeser’s brother, Jim Roeser, (bottom) begins to remove minute marks on a clock face in the tower at King Chapel on the Cornell College campus in Mount Vernon. Chuck Roeser is owner of Essence of Time tower and street clock restoration of Lockport, N.Y., where he will be restoring the clock over the next year. (Liz Martin/The Gazette)
Chuck Roeser (top) and Cornell College facilities technician Dustin Burnett watch Tuesday as Roeser’s brother, Jim Roeser, (bottom) begins to remove minute marks on a clock face in the tower at King Chapel on the Cornell College campus in Mount Vernon. Chuck Roeser is owner of Essence of Time tower and street clock restoration of Lockport, N.Y., where he will be restoring the clock over the next year. (Liz Martin/The Gazette)

MOUNT VERNON — From atop Cornell College’s historic King Chapel, a pointed roof tower reaches toward the sky, with a more-than-100-year-old clock nestled inside keeping the time for all who live and work in the city below.

The clock and bell inside it are expected to continue working in harmony to ring out for at least another 100 years thanks to a restoration project that covers repairs to the clock and the structure of the tower.

Cornell’s campus is one of two places like it in the country where the entire campus is designated on the National Register of Historic Places. King Chapel, 600 First St., with its nearly 130-foot tower, is home to the highest point in Linn County.

Chuck Roeser, a clock expert from Lockport, N.Y., started work Tuesday to disassemble the clock’s parts and finished Wednesday. Cornell staff worked Monday to prepare for Roeser’s arrival.

The clock, a Seth Thomas Co. Model 17 installed in 1882 that is manually wound weekly, will return to campus next summer.

In the meantime, Roeser will ship the clock to New York where he and the staff at his firm, Essence of Time, will restore it.

Jeff Streitz, director of facility services, said the restoration will bring the clock’s faces back to their original black color. The hands, numerals and other markers will be gold-leafed.

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Roeser’s work will involve refabricating, cleaning or restoring the dials, hands, framing, gears, numerals and other parts.

Roeser said it is unusual for a clock of this age to be almost entirely in its original form, as many clocks now are motorized.

“We want to keep as much of the original decoration on this project as possible,” he said. “That involves really going slow and doing it correctly.”

Streitz said the project is being funded with $800,000 in grants and gifts. The grants come from the Stockman Family Foundation Trust of New York, the State Historical Society of Iowa, the Linn County Historic Preservation Commission and the Nina E. and Victor D. Merveaux Endowed Fund for Historic Preservation.

The latest gift is from one of the college’s trustees, Cornell alumna Linda Koehn, and her husband, honorary alumnus Thomas Koehn.

It has taken about nine years of preparation and research to start this project, Streitz said.

Now that the time has come for the clock to be restored, Streitz said it’s exciting “to see it come apart and go out the door and knowing when it comes back, it’s going to be spick and span and shiny and fully restored.”

Dozens of names are written or etched onto the wooden tower around the clock.

Johnny Olshewsky, Cornell facilities technician, said some of these names date to the 19th century. Many are from employees who have worked with the clock.

“It’s got a lot of history and a lot of lore,” he said.

According to Olshewsky, one clock keeper, Ed Vassar, created an organization called the Order of the Tower. Vassar would start tours of the structure by opening a door and asking visitors to swear allegiance to the order of the tower.

Vassar wrote a poem in 1991 just behind the door to the clock tower.

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“A billion beats of this metal heart have passed before you,” it reads. “A billion more will pass the time after you sign your name.”

Olshewsky, who winds and oils the clock, said his name just might be found among the rest.

“It’s almost like the poem says there, it’s the heartbeat of the college,” he said. “You can almost feel it in your heart, and if not, you shouldn’t be winding it.”

l Comments: (319) 398-8332; marissa.payne@thegazette.com

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