In Victory, and Finally Defeat, the Fight for Tribeca's Rare and Majestic Clock

Marvin Schneider, the city's Clock Master, who had completed restoring the Clock Tower timepiece in 1980, after its two decades of abandonment. The landmark building, originally the home of the New York Life Insurance Company, belonged to the city for many years before being sold to developers. Photo: Carl Glassman/Tribeca Trib  

Apr. 20, 2019

It was a Tuesday in December, 2014, and the city’s Landmarks Preservation Commission had just taken a 6-1 vote that sunk the hearts of horologists. Along with the approved restoration and condo conversion plan for 346 Broadway, aka the Clock Tower Building, came the go-ahead to sell off the Tribeca building’s historic clockworks. The manually wound timepiece, one of the few still-functioning tower clocks of its kind, would be electrically powered and forever kept from public view—the private property of a penthouse owner.

No one knew and revered that clock more than Marvin Schneider and Forest Markowitz, the two men who for years had wound, oiled, inspected, reset and otherwise preserved the 1897 E. Howard Watch and Clock Company’s No. 4 Striking Tower Clock.  

Now, pausing outside the hearing room, they refused to accept defeat.

“There are other avenues to explore,” said a quixotic sounding Markowitz. “I don’t think it’s over yet.”

Indeed, it was not. Over the next nearly four-and-a-half years, a tiny band of horologists and preservationists, with their lawyer Michael Hiller, kept their hopes alive, dashed only late last month by their defeat in the state’s highest court.

In their lawsuit, the preservation group claimed that the LPC had overstepped its authority by discontinuing public access to a public landmark, and by allowing the mechanical clock to be electrified. Their opponents, the city and developers Elad Group and the Peebles Corp., argued that the LPC’s decision was rational and legal, and that the agency did not have the power to require the building owner to make interior spaces open to the public.

The preservationists won in State Supreme Court, and the State Appellate Court upheld that decision, 3-2. “This majestic clock and its historically significant function mechanism, is a perfect example of the very reason the Landmarks Law exists…” State Appellate Judge Lynn Kotler wrote for the majority.

But the State’s Court of Appeals disagreed, and in a 4-2 decision on March 28 overruled the two lower courts.

“America is going to lose the greatest clock mechanism that was built in this country,” said Chris De Santis, author of “Clocks of New York.”

“It’s both a unique individual loss and a loss of what we feel is a weakening of landmarks preservation in the city,” said Jeremy Woodoff, a board member of Save America’s Clocks.

Simeon Bankoff, executive director of the Historic Districts Council, warned of a “potentially chilling effect” on the regulation of interior landmarks law.

A spokesman for the New York City Law Department, which defended the LPCs decision, said in a statement: “We’re pleased the Court found that the Commission’s decision to approve this comprehensive project to restore and revitalize the building was appropriate and lawful.”

“This project protects the clock and includes an incredible restoration of the building and the banking hall,” Landmarks Preservation Commission spokeswoman Zodet Negron wrote in an email.

In October, 2014, as developers were pursuing approvals for their residential conversion plans for 346 Broadway, the Trib visited wth Marvin Schneider and Forest Markowitz, who were continuing to wind the clock after electricity had been cut to the tower. This is the video from that day.

Writing for the majority, Judge Michael Garcia said the Landmarks Commission has “broad discretion” over its decisions, and the court can’t substitute its judgement for the commission’s. Judge Jenny Rivera, dissenting, argued that approving the developers proposal to alter the clock’s mechanics, which define its unique features, and denying public access to the  interior landmark, is a violation of Landmarks Preservation law.

As part of the LPC’s approval, the bell, weights and clockworks are required to remain in place, with the clock tower space weatherized “for the first time,” the commission spokeswoman wrote in an email.

A restrictive declaration will govern the landmarked spaces in the building and require inspections every five years, according to Michael Giuliano, marketing and design coordinator for the developer, Elad Group. “A report will be created and sent to the Landmarks Preservation Commission detailing the condition of the clock and other designated space,” he said in an email.

“It was understood that no major changes are made to the machinery itself except its disconnection from the clock faces,” said Schneider, who spent a year working as a volunteer to restore the mechanism and bringing the clock, with its 2,600 pounds of weights, back to life in 1980, after 20 years of abandonment. With continued oiling and rust removal, he said, it should be possible for it to run mechanically once again, as it had for 116 years.

“Who knows, maybe in a hundred years somebody may change his mind,” Schneider added. “We have to think of posterity now.”