New York’s Treasure Chest of Clocks

The 7th Regiment Armory, a huge, turreted red brick and brownstone structure on New York’s posh Upper East Side, is a triumph of Victorian architecture and engineering. Built in 1877-81 and designed by Charles W. Clinton, the Park Avenue colossus defined the armory as a building type. Its castle-like administration wing and soaring, unobstructed drill hall became the hallmark of armory buildings for the next 50 years.

In addition to its military functions, the armory served as a social club for its members, who included some of New York’s most illustrious citizens. True to its name, the area’s “Silk Stocking” 7th Regiment called on the period’s best-known interior design firms to decorate the ceremonial and regimental rooms. Associated Artists (Louis C. Tiffany & Co.), Herter Brothers, Pottier & Stymus, George C. Flint & Co., Kimbel & Cabus, and Alexander Roux & Co. designed and built some of the finest Aesthetic Movement, Queen Anne, and Renaissance Revival interiors of the time. Much of their work survives, giving the armory one of the most intact collections of interiors from this period anywhere.

Many of the rooms incorporate clocks into their sumptuous furnishings. These were manufactured and sold by Tiffany & Co. (the jeweler, not the decorator), E. Howard & Co., Seth Thomas, and others. Some represent the most lavish examples of their type.

Each of the 10 original companies of the regiment commissioned leading New York design firms in a “quiet rivalry to secure the most artistic designs and the best mechanical execution” for their second-floor rooms (Col. Emmons Clark, History of the Seventh Regiment of New York 1806-1889, vol. 2. New York: 7th Regiment, 1890). Most of the rooms were decorated with Renaissance Revival style woodwork, often with an elaborate fireplace on one wall and a similarly ornamented piano alcove on the opposite wall. Completing the elaborate ensembles were an Aesthetic Movement ceiling and wall decoration, mirrors, ornate gas and electric chandeliers, ironwork, cast-iron radiators, frosted- or stained-glass window screens and transoms, ornamental panels, commemorative memorial tablets, clocks, armor, decorative hardware, and parquet floors.

Company room clocks. Five of the company rooms were designed with built-in clocks, all of which survive.

Company F. The E. Howard & Co. clock in the Company F room is set within the carved oak overmantel. Its 12-in.-diameter dial is bronze with raised numerals and trefoil-form brass hands. The movement is a type 77B Howard.

Edward Howard was apprenticed in 1829 to Aaron Willard Jr., of the famous Simon Willard family of clock makers. Under various firm names, and for a time in partnership with David P. Davis, also a Willard apprentice, Howard produced a wide variety of high-quality clocks, including astronomical regulators, tower clocks, and office wall clocks in various styles. The firms also manufactured very fine watches, scales, fire engines, and mass-production machinery. As in the armory clocks, Howard movements often were installed in cases custom-designed by others.

Company H. The built-in clock in Company H’s room, also by E. Howard & Co., is set within a foliated oak panel. A turned oak bezel surrounds the 12-in. silvered dial with engraved Arabic numerals and steel hands.

“E. Howard & Co./Boston” is engraved on the dial and on the rectangular-plated movement, which is supported on a wood seatboard with elaborate cast-iron brackets. Some alteration may have occurred, since the hole for the second hand on the dial has been filled with a screw, and the present movement layout would not allow for the operation of a second hand.

The second clock in this room is a hall clock in a 7-ft. 11-in. carved mahogany case with beveled glass. It dates from about 1890-1900, when hall clocks were coming back into fashion after the Victorian era. “Tiffany & Co. New York” is engraved on the gilt and silver dial with raised Arabic numerals and a painted rolling moon in the arch. The movement is of German origin and strikes the hours on a gong. Although Tiffany is said to have made clocks on special order prior to 1888, this one, and most others with the Tiffany name on the dial, weren’t manufactured by the company.

Company D. The clock in this room is high up on a side wall, surrounded by a wreath, swagged drapery, spears, and a pair of lions, all of carved mahogany. The black dial with gilt Roman numerals and hands has no maker’s name, and the movement could not be accessed for identification.

Company I. The clock in this room appears to date from the beginning of this period, having an attached memorial tablet to Wallace Redfield Platt, enlisted 1886, died 1887. While not physically built-in, it sits atop a high cabinet and appears to be fixed in place. It’s 39 in. tall. The clock’s bulbous mahogany case is encrusted with black-painted forged and stamped acanthus leaves and vines. The unsigned, turned, and silvered dial has applied, forged metal Arabic numbers. The movement is marked “Tiffany & Co. New York” and is probably of German origin. Powered by two mainsprings, the clock strikes the hour or, rather, would if it were working.

Company K. Oak and mahogany woodwork dominate this room, with a spindle railing atop the paneled lockers and arched-top, built-in cabinets with decorative panels. The clock is in a tower of sorts, asymmetrically placed at the end of a row of lockers and topped with a swan-neck pediment. The 11-in. dial is of red marble with carved Arabic numerals and brass hands. It features a small, double-spring powered Seth Thomas marine movement (balance wheel with lever escapement).

Seth Thomas is perhaps the best known of the American clock companies. Begun about 1808, the firm continued under family control until 1958. Starting with wood-cased, wood movement clocks, Seth Thomas became, in the second half of the 19th century, one of the largest U.S. producers of a wide variety of clocks, from cheap alarms to fine astronomical regulators, tower clocks, and sidewalk clocks. The company still exists as a division of General Time Corp.

Company B. Company B does not have a built-in clock, but sitting on the Renaissance Revival style mahogany lockers is a carved mahogany shelf clock by Seth Thomas. White letters spelling “THE.OLD.SECOND” substitute for numerals on the elegant black porcelain dial. The original time and strike movement has been replaced with a small lever movement.

Drill Room. The great Drill Room is significant as a work of architecture and engineering and for its role in the military, social, and cultural life of the 7th Regiment and New York City. The Drill Room has the oldest extant “balloon shed” in the United States and is believed to have been one of the first non-railroad buildings in the country to incorporate this system. (Balloon sheds were commonly used for railroad stations, but most have been demolished.) The armory’s balloon shed consists of 11 arched, riveted iron trusses, each spanning more than 187 ft. and visible almost down to floor level.

The room was originally painted in brilliant red, white, and blue, with the national emblem applied to buttresses and stars and other emblems on the ceiling. While a number of alterations have been made, including repainting in a drab palette, the grandeur of the room remains intact. Today, the Drill Room is home to the famous Winter Antiques Show and other similar exhibitions.

The wooden Drill Room clock is high on the east wall. At 7 ft. square, the clock is large enough to read from across the vast room, 300 ft. away. The colorfully painted case is embellished with carved cannons, rifles, and a ribboned crest. The white dial is painted with bold, black Roman numerals and is inscribed “Tiffany & Co. Makers.” This could indeed be one of those “special order” clocks actually made by Tiffany.

To access the movement, one opens one of the side doors and walks in – the clock is that big! It’s disappointing to see a small, synchronous electric movement dating from the mid-20th century. The disappointment is tempered, however, by the discovery that the history of the clock has been penciled by various workmen on the back of the dial.

Regimental rooms. Unlike the company rooms, which have built-in clocks, the regimental rooms have either free-standing hall clocks or shelf clocks.

The Veterans’ Room.This is the most famous room in the armory. It was designed and decorated by Associated Artists (Louis C. Tiffany & Co.) with architect Stanford White. This room and the adjacent library are two of the very few surviving Tiffany interiors and are among the most intact rooms in the armory.

The Veterans’ Room has two hall or grandfather clocks. Both are 8 ft. 6 in. high, but they do not even rise to the height of the wood wainscot, which itself extends less than half the height of the room. These clocks, which would have a major presence in most rooms, are dwarfed here. The finer of the two, marked “Tiffany & Co. New York” on the dial, is in a carved oak case with elaborate forged iron trim applied to the crown, glazed trunk door, and trunk corners. The 12-in. gilt and silvered dial has a painted rolling moon in the arch. The two-weight movement strikes the hours on a gong. A plaque on the door reads “State & 1st Brigade Prizes 1892,” thus probably dating the clock to 12 years after the completion of the room.

The second hall clock in the Veterans’ Room is an open-well type, which has no trunk door. The case is oak with turned and carved decoration. The 11-in.-diameter brass and silvered dial is again engraved “Tiffany & Co. New York.” The heavy, two-weight movement is of excellent quality but unknown origin. A plaque on this clock reads “First Brigade Prize 1890 Won By 7th Regiment.”

Third Floor Veterans’ Memorial Room. This is not one of the armory’s many landmarked rooms; in fact, it has the ambiance of a household den, circa 1960. It does, however, have a wonderful hall clock. The case is of beautifully carved oak with beveled glass. The dial is brass and silver with a rolling moon in the arch and is engraved “Tiffany & Co.” The heavy, chiming movement was made in England and is powered by three weights. Of the 18 historic clocks in the 7th Regiment Armory, this is the only one running.

Field and Staff Room. Pottier & Stymus decorated this room in the Renaissance Revival style using dark mahogany cabinets and wainscot and extensive stenciling on the ceiling, frieze, and walls. On the carved mantel is an eight-bell Seth Thomas Sonora Chime clock, model No. 258.

The Sonora Chime Co. of New York patented its system of “resonated” chiming bells in 1908. Very few clocks were made by this company before Seth Thomas apparently acquired the patent rights, with the first Seth Thomas Sonora Chime models appearing in the company’s 1909-10 catalog. The last catalog in which they appear is 1921-22. The clocks were manufactured in four-, five-, and eight-bell chime models in a number of different case styles. The Armory’s model was the most expensive, listed at $125 in the 1915-16 catalog.

The case is of hand-carved mahogany, 32×14 1/2 in., and has a central drum flanked by scrolls. The 7 1/2-in. dial is of silvered brass with applied bronze numerals. A lever allows for selection of Westminster or Whittington chimes, with an optional feature added that allows selection of alternating chimes to be played each hour. A plaque on the base of the clock states “First Brigade Prize 1913 Won By Seventh Regiment.”

Inner Committee Room. Created from a portion of the North Squad Drill Room in 1909-11, the Inner Committee Room was designed by architects Robinson & Knust in the neo-Classical style. It’s much less ornate than the earlier armory rooms. Its oak wainscoting and trim and brass chandeliers and sconces nevertheless provide a dignified setting for the severe lines of the Seth Thomas wall regulator No. 11. The fully glazed front reveals a 12-in. painted dial, brass pendulum ball, and brass weight. A bit of the massive, heavily bracketed movement is visible behind the dial and is indicative of the clock’s high quality. The plaque on the door reads “1st Brigade Prize 1919 Won By 7th Regiment Infantry N.Y.G.” While not made specifically for the armory, this and similar wall regulators are greatly sought after by collectors.

Daniel Appleton Memorial Mess Hall. A 1929 addition to the armory allowed the fourth floor, itself an addition of 1911, to be converted by Irving & Casson/A.H. Davenport into the Daniel Appleton Memorial Mess Hall. The banquet room contains a spectacular hall clock, its oak case encrusted with bronze ornaments. The waist door is of stained and leaded glass and includes small cloisonné enamel panels. A mirror inside the case reflects the stained glass and swinging pendulum, creating a brilliant and colorful display. The turned and silvered round dial is marked “Tiffany & Co. Makers,” but the movement is a German spring-driven model with chimes. The clock was “Presented by George Albert Legg In Memory of His Father George Legg.”

Security Room and Basement. Two clocks are located in sections of the armory not intended for public use. They are both clocks of the Self-Winding Clock Co., Brooklyn. This company was formed in 1886 by Charles Pratt with Henry Chester Pond. Its production was based on Pond’s design for automatically winding the clock each hour with a motor powered by two 1 1/2-volt dry cells located in the case.

The high-quality, pendulum-controlled movement, combined with the constant driving force of the small, frequently wound mainspring, yielded a highly accurate clock subject to minimal wear. An optional attachment allowed the clocks to be synchronized by hourly U.S. Naval Observatory time signals sent over Western Union telegraph lines.

These clocks were common in government offices, schools, and other institutions and could be seen in all Western Union telegraph offices. The cachet of the direct connection with Naval Observatory time helped Self-Winding maintain its position at the forefront of electromechanical clock producers in the 20th century. The company remained in business as late as 1970, by which time cheap and accurate synchronous electric clocks had overwhelmed the market.

The first of the Self-Winding armory clocks is on the wall of a small security room between the main entrance hall and main corridor. It is a regulator wall clock, model 41, with a 63-in.-high oak case, beveled glass door, mercury compensated pendulum, and style F vibrating motor. The case is elegant but plain. There is evidence that this clock at one time was connected to the Naval Observatory time service. The second Self-Winding clock, mounted to a wall in a cramped corner of the basement, is a model 29B with a 36-in. painted dial in a 48-in.-square wood case. The case is painted but was probably originally varnished. There seems no reason to have such a large clock in this location; probably either the basement was remodeled around it or it was moved from another location. It has a type F 1/2 L vibrating motor, a more robust model designed to drive the large hands. “Installed 11-3-[19]11” is noted on the inside of the case.

All but one of the armory clocks are silent now, neither ticking nor chiming the hours. The New York State Division of Military and Naval Affairs, which maintains the armory for active National Guard use, lacks the resources to keep them running. Most suffer only from dirty movements or easily replaced missing parts. Someday, hopefully, they will be brought back to life.

Jeremy Woodoff is a writer and historic preservationist based in Brooklyn, N.Y. He has collected and restored antique clocks for many years.

Historical and descriptive information on the armory interiors from the Seventh Regiment Armory Interior Designation Report (LP-1884), City of New York, 1995, prepared by Jay Shockley, deputy director of research for the New York City Landmarks Preservation Commission. Access to the clocks provided by Paul B. Haydon, curator of the 7th Regiment Fund Inc.

Buying an Antique Clock

Although many of the clocks in the 7th Regiment Armory are unique and can’t be sold, some were catalog items and they, or similar models, can be purchased. For example, the Seth Thomas Sonora Chime clocks, Seth Thomas and Self-Winding regulators of various styles, and turn-of-the-century hall clocks are all available.

The usual caveats in buying antique furniture and decorative objects apply to clocks, of course, but clocks offer an additional challenge: Their movements must be assessed, both for condition and for originality to the case. The usual advice – buy from a reputable dealer – is fine as far as it goes. But retail clock stores are not to be found in every antique center, and general antiques dealers are not always knowledgeable about clocks’ insides.

The best way to start collecting is to join the National Association of Watch and Clock Collectors (NAWCC). This nonprofit organization has its headquarters and a significant museum of clocks and watches in Columbia, Pa. Membership brings monthly publications, including the MART, with its lists of clocks and watches wanted and offered for sale by individuals and dealers.

Also advertised are regular auctions by a handful of specialist clock and watch auction houses, including R.O. Schmitt Fine Arts, P.O. Box 1941, Salem, NH 03079; and Horton’s Antique Clocks, 201 Culpepper Rd., Lexington, KY 40502. These houses offer illustrated catalogs and bid-by-mail services. What is lost in the way of hands-on inspection is compensated for by these dealers’ extensive knowledge and the extraordinary variety of clocks offered for sale.

Membership in NAWCC also provides access to its lending library, school of horology, and local chapters. The marts at the yearly national and frequent regional meetings are literally supermarkets of antique clocks and watches. Programs on horological history and technology are offered at these events. Contact NAWCC at 514 Poplar St., Columbia, PA 17512; www.nawcc.org.

Antique clocks (like everything else) are now being bought and sold on the Internet. Visit www.horology.com/horology to find a number of sites with clocks for sale. Of particular interest are the Internet auction services, one of which is at www.ebay.com. At any time, hundreds of clocks are listed on this site, most with pictures.