Oct. 25, 2006 -- For decades, the University of Virginia’s Cocke Hall clock, like any broken clock, has only been right twice a day. But thanks to a meticulous restoration, you’ll now be able to set your watch by this long-dormant timepiece.
Although the building that houses it was built in 1898, the clock was first mentioned in the minutes of a Board of Visitors meeting in 1928, which cited a $1,000 donation from Robert Coleman Taylor, an 1886 graduate of the law school, then housed in Minor Hall. Taylor, a Manhattan resident, was assistant district attorney for New York County from 1902 to 1936.
The minutes specified a westward orientation for the clock in the Mechanical Laboratory, as Cocke Hall was known at the time, toward Minor Hall.
Mark S. Kutney, conservator with the University architect’s office, speculated that the clock was placed where it was because the Rotunda clock is not visible from Minor Hall.
Built by the Standard Electric Time Co. of Springfield, Mass., the Cocke Hall clock is an “impulse” clock (see "The Inner Workings of the Impulse Clock," below) — a fairly rare design, according to Robert L. Desrochers, the Lititz, Pa., clock expert who restored the timepiece. While some of the company’s clocks survive in the Springfield area, Standard was the only company that built this style of timekeeper.
“It was a joy to be able to work on something historic in a historic building and bring a clock back to life to run the way it was supposed to,” Desrochers said.
The restoration project was paid for by a descendant of John Hartwell Cocke, a friend of University founder Thomas Jefferson and a member of the first Board of Visitors. The building was named in his honor in 1939.
The clock restoration took about nine months as Desrochers juggled it with other jobs. The clock returned to the University in April and was installed in the building. It was restarted this summer, when the building renovations were complete.
While other options were considered, including installing a modern timepiece, Kutney said restoration was an economic choice. When he first went into the Cocke Hall attic, he found many of the clock’s original parts and some of the original packing materials strewn around. Desrochers said other parts would have been hard to find and he would probably have had to fabricate them.
Kutney also cited the clock’s “70-plus years as part of this building and University tradition.
“We looked critically at the cost and whether or not a restored clock could keep excellent time and be very low maintenance,” Kutney said. “A modern device would also be expensive and we found all the original parts.”
Desrochers, who had been the conservator of the Watch and Clock Museum in Columbia, Pa., was pleased the University chose to save the clock.
“Restoration does not happen as often as it should,” he said.
The inner workings of the impulse clock
The Cocke Hall clock — two concentric brass rings linked by Roman numerals on the clock face, with aluminum hands to reduce weight on the mechanism — is an “impulse” tower clock controlled by a primary timepiece elsewhere in the building. When it was first installed, the primary clock sent an electrical impulse, 24 volts of direct current generated by a battery, to the secondary clock every 52 seconds. The current started a small motor that advanced the minute hand for eight seconds. With this design, all the clocks in the building could be synchronized to the primary clock.
The clock operated for years as intended, but at some point it was modified to operate on alternating current, which clock expert Robert L. Desrochers said was done badly and proved to be the clock’s undoing. While the alternating current was stepped down to a lower voltage, the motor then operated all the time, instead of for eight seconds every minute, and the strain was too much for the clock mechanism.
“[The clock] failed terribly at that point,” Desrochers said. “It was never right and it couldn’t be.”
There are no records about when or why the clock was converted, but Desrochers said a Veri-ac voltage reduction system was used in the conversion and these have been in operation only in the past 40 years.
The clock was eventually stopped, which along with its placement inside Cocke Hall, away from the effects of the weather, preserved it—although in a less than pristine condition. Desrochers observed that someone had lubricated it with grease, which draws dust and increases friction.
In restoring the clock Desrochers returned it to a pulse a minute, using a Veri-ac to regulate the AC voltage. The primary clock, which is next to the secondary clock, now is controlled by a computer chip.
There was no evidence of the original primary clock in Cocke Hall, said Mark S. Kutney, conservator with the University Architect’s office, estimating it would have looked like a 1920s wall-mounted regulator-style clock. There was no evidence of other clocks connected to the tower clock either.