Work could begin soon on Hatboro's historic clock

A montage of images in Charles Roche's office
A montage of images in Charles Roche's office (shows his first visit inside the clock tower, as well as exterior views. He hopes to see the clock running by 2015, Hatboro's tricentennial. ELISE WRABETZ / Staff Photographer)
Posted: July 10, 2012

Growing up in Findlay, Ohio, in the 1940s, Charles Roche' sat on his grandmother's front porch at night and admired the glowing face of the clock atop the Hancock County Courthouse.

Everyone in town loved it, he recalled.

Decades later, as a Hatboro businessman, Roche' was struck by another community timekeeper: the Isaiah Lukens clock in the former Loller Academy tower, made by the same man who built a clock for Independence Hall.

From his office balcony, he could see its face, graced by Roman numerals, gazing out over South York Road. He also could see it wasn't working.

"What time is it?" he kept asking business partner Sheryl Edwards as they studied the motionless hands.

It was time, they decided, to get the clock running again.

Nearly four years later, the hands remain frozen at 2:05, but there are encouraging signs that the $35,000 restoration may soon begin. A state grant has been acquired, and a committee formed to get the project moving.

Installed in 1812, the Lukens clock is typical of the country's oldest clocks - those mounted in church towers to summon the faithful to worship, said Keith Winship, a Hatboro clock restorer. "These religious institutions didn't want you to be late."

Town fathers began placing belfry clocks in town halls, which added an air of respectability, Winship said. They also appeared in the towers of school buildings such as Loller Academy, now Hatobor's borough hall.

The Lukens clock's works are contained in a wooden, cagelike frame the size of a kitchen stove inside the tower, accessible only by ladder. The pendulum is 16 feet long, with a lead bob at the end.

To wind it from above, a crank must be turned to raise the weights on the winding drums. "The gravity pulling on the weights," Winship explained, "runs the clock."

Robert Loller, an educator and patriot, commissioned the clock when he left $11,000 in his will for creation of the private academy in this Montgomery County burg in 1808. At the time, Isaiah Lukens' father, Seneca, was a founding trustee.

The timepiece is one of several dozen made by Isaiah, a mechanical genius from Horsham who lived from 1779 to 1846. He built watches, tall-case clocks, and tower clocks. Repositories of his work included the Second Bank of the United States, the Pennsylvania State House, Independence Hall, and the Philadelphia Athenaeum. A few clocks, such as Loller Academy's, survive. "It's really a national treasure," said Jim Lukens, of Doylestown, an artist and descendant of Isaiah. "We're especially lucky to have one in Pennsylvania."

Isaiah is best known for making the second clock for Independence Hall tower, installed in 1828 to replace one that failed. The Lukens clock set the standard for Philadelphia time until 1876, when it was moved to the former Germantown Town Hall to make room for an upgrade. It is now restored and in storage at Independence National Historical Park awaiting a chance at display, said museum curator Bob Giannini.

Barbara Lukens, Jim's mother, recalls the Loller Academy clock from when she was a schoolgirl, 1943 to 1955, long before she married into the family. "I do know the clock was working off and on," said Lukens, of Jamison, Bucks County. "It just always was a fascinating thing for me."

Isaiah Lukens, the unmarried son of German immigrants, learned clockmaking from his father, and opened a shop in Horsham before moving to Philadelphia.

There he became friends with painter Charles Willson Peale and Benjamin Franklin, in whom he found a kindred inventor's spirit. Isaiah helped his friend establish the Franklin Institute in 1824.

Lukens built machine tools, balances, regulator pumps, perpetual-motion machines, and an air gun. "Toward the end of his short life, he developed an aneurysm of the aorta," said Barbara Lukens, chronicler of Lukens history. "He accepted the news of [having] only days to live calmly, and died sitting at his workbench with a tool in his hand."

Roche', now 75, had hoped to get the clock running this year, but that hasn't happened, so he's aiming for Hatboro's 2015 tricentennial.

Restoration could take several years. He estimates that, in addition to the $35,000 to fix the clock, $15,000 will be needed for ongoing maintenance. A 10-member committee of borough officials, residents, and Hatboro's historian recently won a $5,000 state matching grant to plan the project. The match is already in hand, Roche' said.

For proper restoration, according to Winship, the clock must be removed piece-by-piece in the tower, documented, wrapped, carried to a repair shop, and cleaned.

Then the clock must be put together in the shop to make sure it works. It must be taken apart again, and the parts returned individually to the tower for final reassembly.

Lin Magaha, president of the Millbrook Society, a historical group, said the tower also must be improved and made fireproof if the clock's future is to be ensured.

An important next step will be fund-raising, Magaha said. To that end, Jim Lukens has pledged to create paintings of the tower and donate them.

As for Roche', he hopes the restored clock will run an additional 100 years.

"In all the world, there's only one community called Hatboro," he said. "There's history here. Don't we want to pass it on to our children?"


Contact Bonnie L. Cook at 610-313-8232 or bcook@phillynews.com. Read her MontCo Memo blog on philly.com.

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