Minneapolis may soon turn back the hands of time on its signature City Hall clocks, swapping their red neon night glow for a more historically appropriate look.
Frosted glass and LED backlighting will restore the original nighttime appearance of the clock hands, which have heralded the time from their perch atop the building for more than 110 years. The building’s nearly 24-foot clock faces are some of the largest in the world, trumping even the clock containing Big Ben in London.
The long-awaited renovation, which primarily involves replacing the deteriorating metal frame and clock face panels, will be reviewed by the city’s heritage preservation commission Tuesday. The budget is around $2 million, split between the city and Hennepin County, which both occupy the building.
“Obviously this clock is very unique. It’s a very complicated project,” said Erin Delaney, director of the Municipal Building Commission, the joint agency of Minneapolis and the county that runs the building. “They just don’t build clocks like this anymore.”
Constructed between 1889 and 1905, City Hall is both a city-designated landmark and listed on the National Register of Historic Places.
The red neon tubing on the clock hands has illuminated the Minneapolis skyline since 1949, when the clock’s glass panels and copper hands were replaced with stainless steel. A report by MacDonald & Mack Architects indicates that change came after cracking was discovered on the plate glass — which had allowed for backlighting.
The appropriateness of keeping the neon arose during City Council discussion of the renovation in 2012. Then-Council Member Betsy Hodges suggested neon would have seemed quite foreign in the 19th century, adding “Does it have to be red?” Hodges, now mayor, was out of the country on Friday.
Then-Council Member Sandy Colvin Roy, who has since retired, said at the time that there would be an outcry if the lighting around the hands was removed. She was less convinced of that when contacted Friday, however.
“If it doesn’t end up being a harsh contrast with the historical building, I don’t think there will be an outcry afterwards,” Colvin Roy said. “Some people beforehand will be worried about it, because we don’t like the things that we really care about to change.”
Like many Twin Cities residents, Colvin Roy has her own personal memories of the neon clock hands. She recalled lying in bed unable to sleep at Minneapolis General Hospital in 1975, after giving birth to her daughter.
“I could see the clock tower from my bed,” Colvin Roy said. “So I watched the clock hands go around just about ’til dawn.”
Architect Phillip Koski, a former chair of the city’s heritage preservation commission, said preservation is best geared toward a building’s period of significance as a landmark, which is 1889 in the case of City Hall.
“If you can return it to the original construction … then for certain that is always maybe the most desirable,” Koski said. “And then if technology or budget precludes you from doing that, you can always replace it with something similar or some kind of modern interpretation.”
Delaney said a number of variables will impact the construction timeline, but she expects work could begin this September. She hopes it will be complete by the end of 2016.
The project still must obtain a number of approvals, including from the board of the Municipal Building Commission. Some aspects are also still being determined, such as whether the existing clock hands can be repaired or need to be replaced.
“Our goal is to repair [the clock] and rebuild it so that it’s operating for another 100 years,” Delaney said.