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Ring the Bells: Fort Christian Chimes Coming Back

Sept. 19, 2008 — Time has caught up with and glorified the grand dame of St. Thomas: The four faces of the Fort Christian tower clock will soon chime the hour, a sound absent from downtown Charlotte Amalie for the past two decades or so.
Quickly passing the ongoing work in the courtyard Thursday morning, three preservationists scrambled up three flights of rough wooden stairs to get a firsthand look at the faces of the tower's restored clock. Mark Rabinowitz of Conservation Solutions, the firm charged with the fort's restoration, led Lorna A.C. Thomas, director of the V.I. State Historic Preservation Office; Levi Farrell, fort curator; and Sean L. Krigger, VISHPO architectural historical senior planner.
The trio returned from scaling the tower as excited as kids at play, their office duds covered in dust and cement residue.
"Halfway up, the stairs got narrower," Thomas said, "and I thought, 'It's a good thing I'm not big.'"
All three agreed the climb was worth it.
"This is a different sort of project," Thomas said. "You have to have a special attachment and love for conservation."
The clock tower is part of phase one of the fort renovation, which began in May 2005 — after more than a decade of bureaucratic wrangling — with much fanfare and an estimate of a year's work. (See "Fort Christian Gets Farewell Before Renovation.")
The work has been stalled by delays, some unforeseen, such as the discovery of skeletal remains buried in the walls of the Lutheran church once on the site. This was followed a few months later by contract disputes on a lead-abatement contract. Finally, in June 2007, the work began again with a new focus brought about by additional funding.
Initially, the work was designated as a "conservation and stabilization" project because the government couldn't afford the work entailed in a restoration process. However, Thomas said, "We were able to get a bit more commitment from the Federal Highway Administration to extend restoration, and the local Public Finance Authority added $2 million more."
The FHA originally provided a $1.2 million grant.
The original clock dates back to between 1910 and 1925, Krigger said. It is a Seth Thomas model 14, restored by David Neal of Tower Clock Restoration and Repair of Kentucky, whom Rabinowitz hired for the repair. Neal and his coworker, Robin Kruer, were on the premises Thursday.
The timepiece arrived in a very corroded condition, Neal said. It was a challenge, he said, but one with which he seemed well pleased. He said it took five months of consistent work, as he instructed the preservationists on the care and feeding of his handiwork. With proper "oil, love and maintenance," he said, it should last a few hundred years.
The clock's handsome roman numerals are installed on laminated glass. It has taken three days to get the clock faces and the intricate clockworks hoisted up to their old home and installed.
"They used the historic bezel, using materials that will last longer in this environment," Krigger said. "The iron rings are part of the original clock."
Look for the clock to shine out soon.
"She'll be lighted from inside so you can see her from a distance," Krigger said. "We had to trim the upper canopy of trees, which create chaos."
Krigger won't say when the historic timepiece will officially tell the island time.
"We may have a test strike early next week," he said. "Phase one of the construction should be completed by the end of the year."
As the group inspected the clockworks, the courtyard was alive with activity, with workmen hoisting buckets of lime mortar up to others perched on scaffolds spreading the plaster on the tower.
The courtyard is exquisite, like a dollhouse in its perfection. Each of the arched doorways is surrounded by meticulously placed light yellow bricks accenting the deep green shutters. The walls are painted in a deep red oxide, reflecting the structure's former color. The bricks were installed this summer by a group of Danish students, said Victor Matthews, Tip Top construction project manager, as he admired the students' work.
The fort, which dates from 1672, is the oldest structure in continuous use in the Virgin Islands and arguably holds the most historic importance. It has withstood the invasions of European navies and countless hurricanes, but, until 2005, it stood defenseless in the face of federal bureaucracy. Over the centuries it has been used as governor's quarters, place of worship, government office building, prison, courthouse and police station, before being designated a museum in 1971.
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