There In Form, But Not In Function: Milwaukee's Timeless Clock

Sep 30, 2016

On Milwaukee's East Side, there's an ornate clock tower high above an intersection, with black-and-white clock faces. But you can't count on any of them.

The three clock faces on the tower show three different times, none of which is correct.

Patricia Mouseau reached out to WUWM's Bubbler Talk to find out why...

“I’m wondering why the clock in the tower at the corner of North Avenue and Prospect [Avenue] can’t keep good time?” Patricia asks.

A view from inside the Clock Tower Building timepiece.
Credit Ed Buc/NAWCC

Down the street from the Oriental Theater, its three faces look out onto a row of restaurants, a Whole Foods Market and Columbia St. Mary’s Hospital – Patricia’s workplace.

“There is a UWM dorm and UWM services also right in that neighborhood,” she adds. “I’d think a lot of people would be interested in the local time.”  

WUWM'S BUBBLER TALK: What have you always wanted to know about Milwaukee and the region?

During our search for the answer, we discovered Milwaukee has an interesting history with time.

Allen-Bradley Clock Tower in Milwaukee
Credit Stephen Kallao, flickr

For instance, our mystery clock – which ironically, sits atop a structure named the Clock Tower Building – is far from the only timepiece to grace a tall structure in Milwaukee. Plenty of buildings don their own, perhaps most famously, Rockwell International – the former Allen-Bradley building -- which boasts one of the world’s largest four-sided clocks. 

“The history of these clocks generally mirror the history of Milwaukee,” explains Ed Buc, secretary of Milwaukee’s chapter of the National Association of Watch and Clock Collectors.

Buc possesses a depth of knowledge about the city’s rich history of clock- and watch-making, beginning in the late 1800s.

“Milwaukee has a lot of nicknames, and one of those nicknames is the ‘City of Steeples’,” he says. “A drive along I-94, you can see all these different churches. And that’s because these different little neighborhoods ended up creating these little parishes, and as part of the architectural element of these churches, they would install these tower clocks.”

Church clock towers were intended as a timekeeper for folks without wristwatches – a fashion that wasn’t as common, back in the day.

And several clock manufacturers have called Milwaukee home, including Mattias Schwalbach, a German immigrant who made parts for many clocks on Milwaukee’s skyline.

Another important name on the local clock scene: Hawkins. As in, Hawkins Clock Center. 

Gloria Hawkins has co-owned Hawkins Clock Center with her husband, Earl, for the last 40 years.
Credit Rachel Morello

Time is something precious to Gloria Hawkins and her husband, Earl. They’ve run their shop on Greenfield Avenue in West Allis for over 40 years.

Repairmen at Hawkins Clock Center were working on this clock from the Milwaukee County Zoo during our visit to the shop.
Credit Rachel Morello

Gloria has overseen many clock repairs in her time here – including a famous piece in the shop during our visit: the Milwaukee County Zoo clock. All that experience gives her a pretty good idea of what’s wrong with our mystery clock on the East Side…

“These [tower clocks] are all electric. So if they’re not working, that means the motor is shot, and needs to be replaced,” she states.

Another signature feature of our city can affect outdoor clocks, too: cold weather. Experts say exposure to the elements slows and eventually stops clock motors -- and to fix them, somebody with know-how has to come in and tinker by hand.

“Probably your best bet would be to call the manufacture and see if they could help you with that,” she says, adding that one of Hawkins’ repairmen would go to fix a clock like this, as well. “If we are called, we would go out there to check to see if this is something we could fix, absolutely.”

A collection of hanging clocks at Hawkins Clock Center in West Allis.
Credit Rachel Morello

We weren’t able to locate the owner of the Clock Tower Building on Prospect and North in time for this story. But owner: if you’re reading this, a broken clock may be right twice a day, but Milwaukee is wired for a round-the-clock fix!

“There’s a lot to know about clocks, it comes with time,” Gloria Hawkins says.

No pun intended.

“No,” she laughs. “That’s true!” 

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