Advocates Say City Fails to Protect Tribeca's Landmark Clock

The non-working north-facing clock of the Clock Tower Building, 346 Broadway, on Feb. 13. The clock's advocates say that it has been stopped at 10:30 for several months. Photo: Carl Glassman/Tribeca Trib

Posted
Feb. 13, 2023

Update: 3/8/23: the city's clockmaster, Marvin Schneider, reported that the clocks are now showing the correct time. "The issue of getting the clock mechanism inspected is still unresolved, though," he said.

The landmark four-sided clock that crowns 346 Broadway (aka 108 Leonard Street) not only tells the wrong time. To its ardent defenders, those dials speak of broken promises, by the owners and by the city.

Elad Group and the Peebles Corporation won Landmarks Preservation Commission approval in 2014 to restore the 1898 landmark Clock Tower Building and convert it to condos. That included permission to electrify and privatize the clock mechanism—itself a city-protected interior landmark—within what was planned to become a triplex penthouse. No longer would the clock, one of the few still-functioning tower clocks of its kind, run purely by mechanical means. (The $24.5 million penthouse remains unsold.)

The ensuing controversy and legal battle over that decision may be long past, but the clock’s enthusiasts are crying foul again. They say the developers are failing to comply with their legal requirement to inspect and maintain the mechanism. And, they claim, the Landmarks Commission has not enforced its mandate.

“This is a landmark that is supposed to be protected by the city and the Landmarks Commission and they’ve just completely fallen down on the job from day one,” said Jeremy Woodoff, a former LPC deputy director of preservation who had been a petitioner in the lawsuit.

According to Tom Bernardin, president of Save Our American Clocks, the organization that sued the city over the LPC’s approval, the clock began registering the wrong time soon after it was electrified. As of last week, the north facing dials, especially visible on Broadway, are stuck at 10:30 while the other three are slow. 

“Even people who are not into clocks, if they look up and see it’s saying the wrong time, it’s jarring,” said Marvin Schneider, the city’s official clock master who as a volunteer restored the neglected clock to working condition back in 1980. Along with Forest Markowitz, the two had been continuing to maintain the timepiece until the building’s new owners, they said, forbade them to visit it. 

“People look up at it and think, ‘Ah, it’s junk,’” Schneider added.

In their lawsuit against the city, a group of horologists and preservationists claimed that the LPC had overstepped its authority by discontinuing public access to a public landmark, and by allowing the mechanical clock to be electrified. The city and developers Elad Group and Peebles Corp. argued that the LPC did not have the power to require the building owner to make interior spaces open to the public. 

State Supreme Court and Appellate Court judges sided with the petitioner, but in April 2019 the state’s highest court, the Court of Appeals, overruled those decisions.

A restrictive declaration on the building, the covenant that accompanied the $160 million sale of the city-owned property, stipulates that the clock “shall remain operational…and indicate the time,” excluding the ringing of the bell. The covenant also requires periodic inspections of the historic areas and structures in the building. The stipulation followed promises to the commission by the project’s architect and developer to keep the clock running on time, though disconnected from its original, non-electrified works.

“Our in­tention is to electrify the clock function so that it continues to provide the correct time to the general public, which it always has,” John Beyer of Beyer Blinder Belle, the project’s lead architect, said at the November 2014 LPC hearing on the condo conversion of 346 Broadway. 

“It’s our goal to keep it operational,” Donohue Peebles of the Peebles Corp., said at the previous month’s hearing.

In a letter this month to LPC general counsel Mark Silberman, Bernardin of Save Americas Clocks reiterated complaints he had first made to him in a letter two years ago about the clock’s poor time-keeping. He also cited what he said appeared to be the absence of mandated inspections of the clock tower rooms as well as the safe-keeping of the landmarks-protected mechanisms that had been removed to electrify the clock.

In October, 2014, as developers were pursuing approvals for their residential conversion plans for 346 Broadway, the Trib visited with Marvin Schneider and Forest Markowitz, who were continuing to wind the clock after electricity had been cut to the tower. This is the video from that day.

“We respectfully request that the Landmarks Commission make some efforts to uphold the requirements of the restrictive declaration and the public good which is entrusted to it,” Bernardin wrote. 

Responding to emailed questions from the Trib, LPC spokeswoman Sonia Guior maintained that “the agency is enforcing the restrictive declaration.”

“LPC staff did site visits in the Spring of 2021 and the clock was operating afterwards,” she wrote. “In response to the recent letter from Mr. Bernardin, we alerted the property owner and have been informed that the company that installed the new mechanism has been contacted and they will be coming to repair shortly.”

Victoria Robles of building owner Elad sent the Trib a statement on behalf of company CEO Yoel Shargian: “Thank you for bringing the matter to our attention. It appears that there is a glitch in the computer controls for the clock. We are reaching out to the servicer/installer to schedule a repair.” The Peebles Corp. did not respond to questions.

Those wanting to see the clock in working order were unmoved by the latest promises. “It should not be necessary for members of the public or the press to call the owners’ attention to the fact that the times showing on the dials are incorrect, and that they have been incorrect for extended periods of time,” Woodoff said in an email to the Trib. “If the owners are unable to keep the computer controls working correctly on a consistent basis, they should restore the landmarked mechanical clock to operating condition.”

“Before this clock was disconnected,” Woodoff added, “it worked flawlessly for the 35 years since its restoration.

Comments? Write to carlg@tribecatrib.com