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Historic moment

After being the timepiece for colonists, clock ticks once more

David Hochstrasser adjusted the hands of the 243-year-old clock at the Old South Meeting House in Boston yesterday. The clock had been taken down in August, fixed, and restored. David Hochstrasser adjusted the hands of the 243-year-old clock at the Old South Meeting House in Boston yesterday. The clock had been taken down in August, fixed, and restored. (Bill Greene/ Globe Staff)
By Jack Nicas
Globe Correspondent / December 22, 2009

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It loomed over fiery revolutionary speeches after the Boston Massacre and before the Boston Tea Party; withstood a British siege and a Great Fire; and most importantly, kept a bustling Downtown Crossing on schedule.

But for the past two years, time stood still in the Old South Meeting House clock tower - until it resumed yesterday.

Just after noon, horologist David Hochstrasser affixed new gold-leafed, 4-foot hands to the 243-year-old clock, capping an extensive 11-month restoration that required the removal of the entire mechanism from the building for the first time since it was installed.

Minutes later, up four winding sets of creaky wooden stairs, Hochstrasser cranked the shiny brass gears he had tirelessly scrubbed clean, giving life to the 7-foot pendulum hanging below.

“It’s gorgeous, isn’t it?’’ asked David Webb, a craftsman who restored the south-facing dial and recreated the north one.

“It has been such a community icon for Downtown Crossing,’’ said Robin DeBlosi, marketing director for Old South. “When that clock loses a minute of time we start getting phone calls, so it’s wonderful it’s still true.’’

The two 9-foot clock faces debuted a new smalted look, black paint coated with ground glass. That had been the finish on the nearly quarter-ton faces since the mid-19th century.

“They probably had that finish for 20 to 30 years but haven’t been back to a true smalt until now,’’ said Wendall Kalsow with McGinley Kalsow & Associates Inc., the Somerville restoration firm that headed the project. “When the sun hits it, it just sparkles - a shimmer like a little jewel in the air.’’

The relic is believed to be the oldest working clock in the state and one of the three oldest tower clocks in the country still running in its original location, said Paul Foley, a clock historian.

“I think it’s safe to say, if it’s wound every week and well-oiled, it can last another 200 years,’’ Hochstrasser said as he brushed the teeth of the gears like a proud Corvette owner polishing his new ride.

The clock was shut down in late 2007 because its hands were damaged. Old South officials didn’t have the money to restore it, until an anonymous donor stepped forward.

“It was sort of a dream come true,’’ said Emily Curran, executive director of Old South.

The $100,000 project has revived a clock that kept time during the shaping of the nation.

Made in 1766 by prominent local clockmaker Gawen Brown, it was installed into the then-Puritan house of worship in 1770.

That year, the timepiece hung outside as hundreds of angry Bostonians gathered at Old South the day after the Boston Massacre, forcing the British governor to remove troops from the city, Curran said.

Three years later, the Sons of Liberty passed under the clock on their way to Griffin’s Wharf to dump 342 chests of tea into the harbor, she said.

The clock served an important social service to early residents, as many did not own clocks or watches, Foley said. Now, with the ubiquitous cellphone, the clock is no longer as essential to daily life. But it’s still a signature sight. “I’ve been here for four years and it became a part of my day; now it will be again,’’ said James Poulos, whose corner office at the AIDS Action Committee on Washington Street affords one of the best views of the icon. “To me, it’s Downtown Crossing.’’

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