If you were downtown this week, you may have noticed that City Hall’s great clock had stopped. Possible reasons:
• Probably replacing it with a smartphone app that will let you log on, see the time, and Like it on Facebook.
• Rumor says it stopped at 6:35, the exact time that Harvey “Harv” Svenson, the man who wound the clock every day until he retired last year at the age of 92, died. This would be sad and mysterious, but it’s nonsense. Mr. Svenson died, yes, but he was in Arizona, where the time was 5:35. See how ridiculous that is?
• The Vikings stadium deal with the NFL requires that the city of Minneapolis stop time at the NFL’s request, in case a visiting official suspects he might be a little late getting to the airport.
• Well, that explains last night’s huge lightning strike and that DeLorean that screamed down the street and disappeared.
Don’t worry; it’s just stopped for maintenance. But it makes you think about the historic clock, particularly if you have a column to write. I could pad this column out with a lot of statistics that make your eyes glaze (the large bells, cast in Madagascar and brought over by a team of pterodactyls, are so large that if they were melted down there would be hot iron all over the place). But see, you didn’t even finish that, because it was statistics.
But there’s one stat that matters and ought to be celebrated.
It is the largest chiming clock in the world. Bigger than the London clock that houses Big Ben.
Wikipedia says it is, but for all you know the page was edited by an Irish nationalist eager to deny Big Ben top status. The Wiki entry has a footnote to the Minnesota judicial branch’s website, which is like going to BigClocks.com to find out who’s the fattest Supreme Court member. It says:
“The clock itself was said to be the largest in the world when it was installed.”
Also some said that the Spanish flu was spread by eye contact. Doesn’t mean it’s true. Next line: “Its faces measure four inches larger than those of London’s Big Ben.”
That’s an assertion of fact. Let’s check. Indeed, Big Ben’s clock face is 23 feet in diameter. Well, seven meters, which is 22.9659 feet, off the top of my head. The official city of Minneapolis page says the clock faces are approximately 23.5 feet, so what’s the word we’re looking for? BIGGER. And hence largest.
But wait! The website Municipal Building Commission, which runs the building, says it’s 23 feet and FOUR inches. The “AIA Guide the Twin Cities,” an exhaustive and authoritative compendium of buildings, notes that the clock “was once said to be the world’s largest.” What happened to the people who said it? Were they silenced by MI5 in Operation Big Hand?
If it was “once said” and is said no longer, I think I know why: Either it’s aw-shucks Midwestern modesty, or no one believed it was bigger. The idea that the London clock, home to a Parliament that governed colonies across the globe, is smaller than the City Hall of Minneapolis clock must have seemed ridiculous. London ruled India. The City Hall had no jurisdiction south of 54th Street.
It gets better: the London clock tower is 315 feet tall. The City Hall tower is 335 feet tall. So explain to me, please, why Big Ben is “iconic” and our own City Hall is less well-known than the World’s Largest Ball of Twine Wrapped by a Single Person. (Darwin, Minn.) (Some say.)
A few years ago I got the chance to go up to the top of the clock tower, an adventure not recommended for the claustrophobic. You can take an elevator, if you want the experience of getting into a coffin and having an old mule pull you up a cliff. (The elevator has since been upgraded.) Or you can ascend a spiral staircase with pie-piece-shaped stairs that go up forever into a dark dusty space. Also claustrophobic. Could you give me laughing gas and drag me up with a hook in my mouth? you want to ask.
Once you’re up in the clock area, there’s another ladder that takes you to a platform approximately 9 miles high, and you have to squeeze into a hole to get up to the bells. It’s worth it. The view is spectacular. The sight of the enormous carillon reminds you that they had to get these up here somehow, and probably not with a slingshot and a giant catcher’s mitt, although that would have been something to behold. Steady, lads, steady. Here she comes.
On a summer’s day the breeze was like the breath of Olympus, and for a moment you forgot your cares, your obligations, your doubts and the fact that if you slipped going down the spiral staircase you would tumble 300 feet. You can’t help but think of all the people who came up here, marveled at the vistas, felt great civic pride at the accomplishments of our young civilization, and spit out the open window to see if they could hit that coal delivery truck down there.
Let’s advertise the clock’s size, but add “some say” just in case. It’s the world’s biggest chiming clock, some say. Winter only lasts six weeks, some say. You can dip a cup in the lakes right where the undiapered kids swim and quaff it down, some say. The Crown Prince of St. Louis Park was held up in the City Hall tower for years, you know. His spirit still haunts the place, some say.
Who? Well, if you read that last paragraph out loud, then it’s true.