County clock tower gets a facelift

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The east clock face, above, after installation of new replicated clock hands by Rory Demesy of Mechanical Watch Supply in Minneapolis, Minn. The hands are gold leafed redwood, salvaged from a 125-year-old structure. (Photo submitted)

By Molly Moser

The wooden clock tower that chimes above the Clayton County Courthouse is undergoing a complex restoration organizers hope will be complete by 2017. In April, Clayton County Historic Preservation Commission (CCHPC) applied for a second Historic Resource Development Project (HRDP) grant which, if received, will provide funding for beginning phase two of the clock tower repair scheduled for this summer.

The original Clayton County Courthouse was located in Guttenberg (then known as Prairie LaPorte) at 510 N. 1st Street. Between 1840 and 1865, the county seat was relocated six times before finally being situated in Elkader as we know it today. In 1877 an addition made the building larger, and a wooden clock tower was added to the courthouse in Elkader in 1896, paid for with contributions from the county government, Senator Fred Bayless, and pledges from the citizens of the county – who also paid by donation for half of the 1877 addition to the courthouse itself. The impressive tower added 45 feet to the height of the courthouse.

Fast forward to 2012, 116 years after it was built, and find the clock tower with severe deterioration, failing paint, possible leaks in the roof, and other deferred maintenance. While gathering information on the general condition of the clock tower in 2013, a sudden unexpected failure of the clock winding mechanism showered shards of metal into its gears and injured county maintenance superintendent Myron Phelps.

Following that event, the CCHPC applied for and received an HRDP grant for $32,700 ($16,433 matched by the county government) to repair the clock mechanism (at 116 years old, still with all its original parts save for the new winding mechanism), as well as the tower base and windows repaired with salvaged glass from the original courthouse windows that were replaced in 1992.

“The county government has been supportive in matching funds for grants, and that support is anticipated to continue through completion of the project,” said Gary Goyette, a restoration and preservation consultant from Guttenberg who has worked extensively on the project. (Goyette was incorrectly attributed with a master’s degree in a recent issue of The Guttenberg Press. To clarify, he says, “I do not have a masters degree; but I have over 30 years experience in the field of architectural restoration, rehabilitation, and conservation of historic structures.”)

The next phase in the project, which will continue if funding is received, includes restoration of the four clock faces to their original appearance. The original dials were made using a binding coat and ground black glass for the weathering surface, and were completed with hands, bronze numerals, and minute marks coated in gold leaf. Those were later replaced by wooden faces and hands. 

There is still much to be done to restore the county clock tower to its original condition. When all is said and done, the project will have cost about $400,000. That may sound like a big number to some, but pales in comparison to smaller counties like Davis: With a population half the size of Clayton County’s, Davis County spent $899,000 to repair their county clock tower.

According to Goyette, approximately 43 courthouses in Iowa have clock towers. Clayton County boasts the only wooden tower among those.

Fundraising to assist in the restoration is anticipated to begin later this year. In July, a series of  informational powerpoint presentations and discussions about clocktower renovations will be held around the county.

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