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05.14.08

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Phaedra

Photograph by Felipe Buitrago
SAVING FACE: John Mitchell made the first donation to get the restoration of San Jose's clock tower going, but 18 years later the project is still stalled.

Clocked Out

One man's quest to restore San Jose's forgotten clock tower

By Gary Singh


JOHN MITCHELL shows me a photo of the San Jose Museum of Art building as it looked about 105 years ago—back when it was the local post office and still featured a clock tower on top of its present edifice.

"You could show that picture to everybody in San Jose today, and about 50 percent of them wouldn't even know what it was," he opines. "'We have a clock tower?' they would ask. 'San Jose has a clock tower?' They wouldn't even know about this."

Mitchell's probably right. To make a long story short, the building currently housing the Museum of Art looked different around the turn of the 20th century. The clock tower made the building 40 feet taller—until that pesky earthquake came along in 1906.

A newer clock was then installed as a quick fix in what was then left of the tower, leaving us with exactly what sits there at Market and San Fernando today. We have one of the last remaining hand-wound pendulum clocks in the United States, and a bell dated 1905, but no tower. And no belfry. If the bell is rung, its sound fills the entire inside of the art museum, but no one outside can hear it at all.

"Downtown doesn't click," Mitchell says. "It doesn't have the tick-tock beat that regulates the city."

Mitchell is the lone gadfly desperado endeavoring to restore the clock tower to what it once looked like, claiming this could be a San Jose landmark to rival many others—the city's unique timepiece. He says he's spent 18 years trying to get this done.

Dan Keegan, former head honcho at the museum, was a firm supporter of the project, but since he's no longer around, Mitchell says, the project has cooled somewhat. Securing funding and raising public awareness isn't easy these days, and Mitchell is frustrated with the lack of widespread support for his endeavor.

He hopes to change all that.

With a roll of blueprints in hand, Mitchell leads me into the back of the museum, where folks can access what's left of the clock tower. After disrupting an employee meeting upstairs in order to get through to the tower room, Mitchell and I climb the stairs to the clock room and yak about the restoration effort.

Right now, if you look at the building from the outside, you'll see three clock faces on the north, south and west sides of what's left of the tower. Mitchell says that one issue in the restoration is whether or not to include the fourth face, which would point east. Some preservationists believe in restoring the tower as purely as possible, with all four faces, while others think it doesn't matter.

"If we don't, then people on the East Side will complain," Mitchell says. "They'll say, 'What, d'ya think the East Side isn't good enough?'" (Knowing San Jose, that's probably exactly what would happen.)

Mitchell says that that is only one of the ridiculous political spats involved with completing the restoration. Nobody seems to even think about the bigger picture, which is that the clock tower would restore San Jose's oldest landmark, one whose image should be forever ingrained in everyone's head when they think of this city.

If folks can suggest that Hangar One at Moffett Field is the South Bay's equivalent landmark to San Francisco's Golden Gate Bridge—yes, people have actually said such things with a straight face—then here's a marginally credible stretch: The historic clock tower at the San Jose Museum of Art could be our version of the Cologne Cathedral in Germany.

You see, in the clock room at the top of what's left of the tower, one finds several handwritten signatures from people who've climbed all the way up there. Climbing the few dozen steps to the clock tower in the museum and arriving in the room with those signatures on the wall is an instant reminder to me of the trudge up the 500-plus narrow steps of the Cologne Cathedral. Spiraling up those stairs in that gargantuan Gothic place, one finds thousands upon thousands of handwritten "so-and-so was here" signatures from folks all over the world.

San Jose and Cologne are not dissimilar. Both are often described as multicultural and rural compared with their more urban neighboring municipalities. But clock tower supporters might hope the similarities end there—it took 600 years for builders in Cologne to finally complete that city's cathedral.

Mitchell himself donated the $200 check to initiate the process of restoring the tower, and he even has a website (www.sjclocktower.org). He was unsuccessful in trying to get hold of state grants to help fund the roughly $3.5 million clock tower project.

"It's like trying to give kittens away at the supermarket; everyone says, 'They are so cute, but no I don't want one,'" Mitchell said.


Erin Sherbert contributed to this report.


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