First Look

A timely repair

For 80 years, sounds of the Hayes Hall bells have reverberated across the South Campus and surrounding neighborhoods, helping untold numbers of students get to class on time and prodding others to check their watches. These are Westminster Chimes and follow the English practice of “quarter chimes,” in which the length of the chime is increased as the hour proceeds.

Since August, though, the bells have been temporarily silenced to allow for what may be the most comprehensive restoration ever undertaken of this historic structure dominating the North Buffalo landscape.

Brian Carter, dean of the School of Architecture and Planning, says he uses the Westminster chimes to gauge when a meeting should end and so has missed this feature in recent months. “The tower of Hayes Hall, the home of UB’s School of Architecture and Planning, is an icon in the city,” he says. “Restoring the clock is an inspiring move—everyone in the school and our neighbors in the surrounding community are looking forward to hearing its chime mark out our day again.”

Throughout the fall and early winter, members of the American Tower Clock Company, headquartered in Rochester and specializing in historic tower clock restoration, have been busily engaged in their meticulous and arduous craft, removing and reinstalling the tower clock components with a crane, and refurbishing the many intricate parts. The restored clocktower should be ready in early February, when the bells will sound again, once the system is reassembled. Meanwhile, the pace is “feverish” to finish, says Michael Kuyt, American Tower Clock Company president.

From a visual standpoint at this writing in late January, the restoration appears complete. “All the dials are completely refinished, all castings have been sandblasted and painted with highly durable paint,” says Kuyt. “The custom glass has been both tempered and laminated and tinted. The glazing is done; the hands have been refinished in gold and have been rebalanced. The motion work has also been reinstalled. So from a visual point of view—from outside the tower—it looks done. But the hands aren’t going anywhere. That’s because the mechanism is still in our shop in Rochester.”

To accompany the visual enhancement, once the restoration is complete visitors to campus will likely hear an improved sound, one that’s clearer and more accurate musically. “There were two problems with the sound,” Kuyt explains. “One, the clock was not synchronized correctly—so sometimes it would play the wrong notes—adjustments were needed.

“Two, the way hammers strike the bells is important. When the bell maker makes the bell, he finds a ‘sweet’ spot on the bell. That spot produces the best sound when struck with a hammer of a certain weight. These big hammers rotate on bearings that are really exposed to the weather. Indeed, the bearings had become so badly worn that some hammers were hanging off to the side. As a result, they weren’t hitting the ‘sweet spot’ or at least not hitting it with the right intensity.”

In planning this restoration, the overarching goal is historical authenticity, says Rhonda Grapes, a registered architect and project manager with UB’s Facilities Planning and Design. While initial plans called for electrification of the clocktower, Grapes began to advocate for a historically based restoration of the original mechanical system.

“In 2003, repairs were done to keep water from pouring in—the clock system had suffered water damage,” says Grapes. “We wrestled with the best way to address the issues. Due to the historic nature of the project, we decided to restore the clock in a historically sensitive way. Electrification would have destroyed the historic character of this campus icon. In the end, we decided it was best to restore the original system. For comparable cost, we have a system able to last another 100 years.”

Searching for clues to help direct the project, Grapes researched the defunct Meneely foundry in Troy, NY, that had cast the original bells in the 1920s. She also located and investigated the handful of firms that currently specialize in tower clock restoration. She interviewed many who had done previous repairs or had conducted inspections of the clocktower. Delving further into her detective work, she visited with Jay Pollard of the State University Construction Fund (SUCF) who has an interest in SUCF’s historically significant properties. In fact, Pollard climbed the tower with her, an undertaking that Grapes has done “many times” as part of her research.

Grapes also shaped much of the project according to input from Dick Yencer, instructional support technician in the School of Architecture and Planning, who manages the model-making shop and teaches the safety program to all students. Since arriving at UB in 1988, Yencer has served voluntarily as an informal caretaker of the clock and belltower, carrying out his labors with precision and obvious devotion. “Dick has done a fabulous job of taking care of the clock over the years, going up and winding the clock system,” says Grapes. “Dick Yencer’s suggestions profoundly impacted the project direction.”

“Anything that would happen, I would basically either do the repairs myself or find someone at the university to do it,” says Yencer. “I took care of it all those years, fixing the bells and hammers, and winding and maintaining it. I build grandfather’s clocks as a hobby—it became a challenge to keep the Hayes Hall clocktower running. It was nice when people took an interest in it, wanting to help maintain it, to see that it got refurbished.”

As part of the restoration, Grapes explains, a new auto-winding system is being installed. This will relieve Yencer of the need to rewind the clock every eight days, though on-site caretaking still will be required.

The clocktower and Westminster chimes were the gift of Kate Robinson Butler (1891–1974), wife of Edward H. Butler, president of the Buffalo Evening News, and later both president and publisher of the News followig her husband’s death. The Hayes Hall clocktower was installed in July 1928, and set in operation later that month. The four bells are located in the open belfry; each bears an inscription related to learning. (“I am the voice of life; I call you: Come and learn,” reads one, written by Cuthbert W. Pound, chief judge of the New York State Court of Appeals.)

Kuyt points out that the bells are original, and because they are bronze—as opposed to cast iron—they will not corrode. “These bells will be there for centuries,” he says.

Various repairs and restorations have been done on the Hayes Hall clocktower over the years. For instance, outside expert Marvin F. DeBoy did extensive repairs in 1989 and subsequently taught Yencer how to maintain the clocktower. Even so, Kuyt believes the current effort may be the most complete.

“There are repairs and then there is restoration, which are very different things,” Kuyt says. “With repair, there is a very specific problem to address. The tower clock is a really complicated, very expansive mechanism that occupies four stories of the tower, and all is interconnected and interrelated. In a restoration, the entire installation is removed and everything is done to make it like new.”

Yencer expects to resume his caretaking role once the restoration work is finished, adding that he has taken many people up the tower over the years, including Boy Scouts and Girl Scouts. “It’s quite a mechanism,” he says. “I appreciate when people take an interest in it. I’m excited about it coming back and running again.”

For her part, Grapes says the Hayes Hall clocktower restoration has definitely piqued her interest in historic architecture and architectural preservation issues at the university.

“The South Campus is a treasure to be protected and shared.”

By Ann Whitcher-Gentzke