Spotlight: Extensive restoration work returns Schwab school clock to its former glory
One of the old clock faces sits near the top of the steps next to a cutout in the floor needed for the faces to fit into the tower. BOB FORD/TIMES NEWS
Dan Humenick from Bradford Clocks holds one of the original wooden hands from the clock tower of Weatherly’s Mrs. C.M. Schwab School.
The mechanical motor which moves the hands hangs from the ceiling of the clock tower in a custom cabinet made by Bradford Clocks.
Coming out of the new controller and motor the original mechanics where used to move the hands on the four clock faces. A pulley used in the old weight system and one of the original hands sits in the well of the clock.
Dan Humenick from Bradford Clocks in Weatherly lubricates the hammer of the bell system. BOB FORD/TIMES NEWS
Dan Humenick from Bradford Clocks leans on the original clock mechanics in the clock tower of Weatherly’s Mrs. C.M. Schwab School. BOB FORD/TIMES NES
Dan Humenick from Bradford Clocks in Weatherly points to the original weight and pulley system that was used to operate the original workings.
The hands of a clock move effortlessly like a duck on water. But just like a duck’s legs beneath the water, there is bustling activity behind a clock’s face.
The tower of the Mrs. C.M. Schwab School in Weatherly has four clock faces, each 5 feet in diameter — and a highly complicated mechanism. While the clock faces once served as the town’s timepiece, for a decade they sat frozen.
A group of volunteers dedicated to the school had the clock repairs at the top of their list ever since the town bought the building in 2016.
Luckily, two nationally renowned clockmakers, who happened to live just outside of town, were eager to help restore the clock. Dan and Leo Humenick of Bradford Clock agreed to donate their time and labor to complete what would have been a $10,000 to $20,000 project at a significantly reduced cost.
“It’s not just an indication of quality people or a quality company, but people who believe in the local area. We could not have reproduced that,” said Charlie Palermo, chairman of the Schwab School Restoration Committee.
The Schwab school was built in 1902, and its clock ran in mostly the same way until the mid 2000s.
Large weights suspended in the tower would methodically fall, turning the mechanism which controls the clock dials and bell. The speed of the chimes was fine tuned with a propeller with adjustable blades which would speed and slow based on the angle they met the wind.
A helicopter-like design linked the mechanism to the four clock faces.
For many years, students would be responsible for turning the crank which would reset the weights, located in the top of the tower, 143 steps up. Many of the students would autograph the white walls inside.
Their signatures remain today as a history of the school. There are sports stars, war heroes, and parents and children who signed the walls years apart.
One inscription reads “Walter Ebling skipped typing, 1941.” Ebling would serve in the Pacific in World War II and return home to teach in the school. He had a nickname, Skip, which came from his note in the tower, according to Schwab School Restoration Project member Phil Jeffries.
Maintaining the glass faces of the clock was another involved process. In the mid-1980s, a painter hung off the top of the clock tower and repainted each of the Roman numerals, Palermo said.
After the new school opened, Jack Koehler, the late town historian, kept the bells ringing. Koehler was a legend in town, and his dedication to the school just adds to that legacy.
“He wasn’t in his 20s when he was doing this. To walk 120-plus stairs once a week and to do all that, there weren’t many like him,” Palermo said.
As the building’s former owner neglected the building, the bells fell silent.
In 2016, when the borough bought the school out of foreclosure — thanks to fundraising by the Schwab School Restoration Project — restoring the clock was a priority because it would serve as a reminder of the ongoing restoration.
On a limited budget, fixing the clock wouldn’t be easy. But if anyone could do it, it was Bradford Clock, located just outside Weatherly in Packer Township.
Over the years the company established a national reputation for custom woodwork. Their work is in famous theaters like Dolby Theater, where the Oscars are held, Lincoln Center and the Guggenheim Museum. Pet cremation urns are also a successful business.
They realized it wasn’t an ordinary job and committed to doing it within the group’s budget.
“I wanted to give something back to the community. I wanted to leave our legacy behind, too,” said Dan Humenick.
The 1902 clock mechanism could have been restored, but it would require weekly winding.
It was decided that the old mechanical weights and cranks would be replaced. After a century of service, the Seth Thomas clock was officially retired. The clock had performed admirably over the years.
“To have it serve us all the time it did, about 90 years before it broke down, it’s phenomenal,” Palermo said.
Mixing new with old
The system which replaced it communicates with cellphone towers to keep the time accurate within hundredths of a second. Instead of the complicated propeller system, an electric solenoid would activate the hammer, striking the bell. While the mechanism, clock faces and hands had to be replaced, some pieces would need to be reused. Humenick specially constructed some of the components and hardware to blend the vintage and modern elements of the clock.
“Anybody that knows us, knows our company, knows that we do quality work number one. I didn’t cut any corners on it,” Humenick said.
When it came to the clock faces, they were also looking for something involving a little less maintenance. They decided to replace the glass faces face with a nearly identical design — made of polycarbonate plastic wrapped in a vinyl graphic. The new faces are lit from inside by LED lighting.
In another helpful coincidence, the company’s owner, Dawn Bellizia, is the Schwab School Restoration Project’s vice president. She donated her company’s time to design and install the graphic. A group of current Weatherly Area High School students helped carry it and got to see the names of generations of Weatherly alumni who signed the inside of the tower.
“It’s really an opportunity of a lifetime for them to go up there and see all the names. Not too many people have gotten to be up there to see all that,” Bellizia said.
Humenick estimates that his company put 300-400 hours into the project, mostly outside of normal work hours. There was extensive computer design work to make the custom aspects of the project. He and his brother worked in the tower the entire week between Christmas and New Year’s. Dan recalled one day working on the project where he had to walk up and down the 143 steps six separate times.
The old hands had to be replaced with new cedar ones, which had to match up with the existing equipment.
They had to measure the speed with which the old system struck the bell so the hammer wouldn’t damage the bell when it was connected to the new electric solenoid.
In the end, the cost to the Schwab School Restoration Project was $7,000 for a project which could have easily cost twice that amount.
“They definitely went above and beyond probably what they agreed to do, that’s for sure. It involved more work, more of their time, more of their expertise, and it all worked out,” Palermo said.
At noon on Memorial Day, the familiar chime of the clock echoed through the town. Thanks to the constant adjustments of the clock, linked to a cellphone tower, Weatherly residents could once again set their watches to the town’s clock.
While the Schwab School Restoration has big goals for the school, they may take years to accomplish.
In the meantime, residents will be reminded of the project by the sound of the clock’s bell. And Humenick hopes they will also be reminded of the work that went into restoring it.
“Every time the clock rings, I hope the people think of us,” he said.