The whirling, swinging and jiggling doodads dazzled people on Nicollet Mall for decades, drawing them to admire the Sculpture Clock that displayed both the time and a never-ending art show.
Once a popular downtown landmark, the 16-foot clock lost much of its luster in 2002 after costly upkeep forced the city to halt the kinetic sculpture’s movement. Now a team of experts is bringing life to its corroded and rusted parts, restoring the only vestige of the original 1960s Nicollet Mall to have a place in the latest redesign.
“People love this thing,” said Kristin Cheronis, who is leading the clock rehabilitation project. “Whenever we were working on it, people would kind of rush up to us and go, ‘You’re not getting rid of the clock, are you?’ ”
When repaired, the clock will return next year to its last location beside Peavey Plaza on 11th Street. That’s down the street from the site where it debuted in 1968 outside the Young-Quinlan Building on 9th Street. The clock was moved in 1991.
Repairing the unique timepiece is no simple task. The sculpture is made up of more than 800 parts, including an array of objects attached to rods inside the clock’s frame. Those include “hollow floats, star-shaped wheels, bouncy straps and springs, swinging spoon-shaped elements, mirrors and more,” according to Cheronis.
“It operates 24/7. That’s why it’s so amazing that it operated for 30 years, really, when it’s kind of a whirligig, handmade kind of an artwork,” Cheronis said.
The Nicollet Mall Sculpture Clock was a spectacle when it debuted. The Minneapolis Tribune compiled photos of people staring at the clock the day after it was unveiled.
“That’s exactly what would happen,” said nearby resident Rosemarie McDonald, an ardent fan of the clock. “You’d be walking down the street and then all of a sudden you’d come upon the clock and you’d see people were watching this.”
The clock was designed by Jack Nelson, an artist and professor at Syracuse University, who died in 1997. After struggling to learn more about the original design, Cheronis said the team had a “Holy Grail” moment when they located boxes of Nelson’s materials that had been kept by his widow in a New York garage. An intern pored over the material and found blueprints and photos of the clock’s construction.
The team also located archival video showing the clock’s many elements in motion.
“They were able to see what moved and how and basically begin to establish what the rotational rates were on some of these elements that spin and turn,” said Regina Flanagan, who is curating Nicollet Mall’s art as part of the redesign.
Research into the clock’s history also revealed some of its origins in correspondence between Nelson and Thomas E. Brown, a principal at Lawrence Halprin & Associates, the landscape architecture firm that designed the original Nicollet Mall.
The two had met in Syracuse, N.Y., and collaborated on plans for a Texas clock that was never built, according to a history compiled by Flanagan. Brown brought up the idea of another clock as the firm designed Nicollet Mall.
“I am writing now to set in motion the gears and escapement devices in your head on creative cogitation for a mate to the [Texas] clock,” Brown wrote to Nelson in 1964.
The clock originally stood atop a base, which allowed for convenient seating. A similar base is planned for beneath the restored clock. “It was like a landmark and people would meet there,” Flanagan said.
The budget for preserving the clock is $261,000, aided in part by a $92,948 state grant, and the piece is expected to return to the mall in November 2017.
It will be joined by other returning artworks, such as the artist-designed manhole covers and George Morrison’s “Tableau” sidewalk mosaic. Several new artworks are planned, including an “iconic wind sculpture” and overhead lanterns.