The Time Machine

THE ELEVATOR TO City Hall's clock tower has an official capacity of five people. Four thin children carrying a fifth could comfortably fit inside. The elevator shaft is the size of a large chimney flue. Three of us squeeze in with no room to spare and slowly groan skyward. At each floor--there are 13 in all--a gun-slit window reveals the same view of metal shelves piled with cardboard boxes containing legal files. A million reams of paper, city government's vital fluid, are stored here.

With a nervous jolt, the elevator stops at the 12th floor and lets us out into a Fritz Lang interior. The room is vast and dim, some 900 square feet with a distant ceiling at least two stories high. There are no windows, but light filters in through chinks in the metal clock faces. Wooden ladders worn smooth from use give access to permanent scaffolding that spans the inside of each face. In the center of the room rises a tall structure, half shed, half tower, that houses the clockworks. Still and moist, traffic din distant, the tower is a good place to contemplate time.

Modern-day tower clocks run on computerized works synchronized by fiber optics to the atomic clock in Greenwich, England, or the less glamorous version in Boulder, Colorado. But our downtown timepiece is an ancient thing, built by the I. T. Verdin company in Philadelphia about 100 years ago. It marks time in years as much as hours. When it rose into the air over the infant city in the late 1880s, it was the crown of the city's largest building. The clock's unerring reduction gears cast in gleaming metal symbolized the times as much as digits do ours, a strutting pride in the machine-tooled age. And what better use to put that power to than marking time: the foundation of business, the working man's circadian rhythm--the clock's hands pointed to tomorrow and dawn. Today it is archaic, though not an embarrassment, guarded by glass tower blocks at the humming center of the city.

The guts of the clock cover a small table in the exact center of the tower, a simple set of gears lathered with grease and powered by an electric motor churning away the hours. Four long driveshafts run from the gears to each of four clock faces, where a final set of gears connects the power to the hands. Each clock measures 24 feet in diameter, and originally the faces were made of glass and lit up from the inside. In 1949, when they appeared to be cracking, the city replaced them with porcelain-glazed sheet-metal panels and lit the hands and numbers with red neon. Legend has it that cops used to drink on the roof of the old parking garage across the street and try to shoot out the neon.

Time stopped up here a couple months ago when the city began tuck-pointing and cleaning the outside of the building. It's been 6:30 in the clock tower ever since. Greg Goeke, the operations manager at City Hall, decided it would be a good time to retool the clock's gears, which were wearing down. "When it got to about five minutes past the hour, it would slip about three minutes. And then when it got around to the half hour it sat there for about three minutes until it picked up the play." Repaired and reassembled, the clock is ready to start up, and Goeke hopes to turn it on October 15. In a gesture to the time she's marked below the tower, Alice Rainville, a quarter-century veteran of the Minneapolis City Council, will throw the switch (a photo-op setup, not the actual switch, which is treacherously placed high in the wooden shed underneath one of the clock's driveshafts), and the quiet revolution will begin again.

If you go up one more floor above the works, on the 13th floor are the bells, which have provided downtown with its time while the clock shut down. It's a wind-blown platform with a bird's-eye view of the city. A dozen bells hang on a gibbet hacked with the initials of dead lovers and gawkers from the turn of the century. Radio dishes send waves to the squad cars wheeling through the streets below. Insect people weave along the sidewalk. Someone looks up at the clock instinctively. Invisible, I signal the time.

 
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