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Santa Cruz Town Clock: Now and Then

The Santa Cruz Town Clock has had an interesting journey to its current location.

Insert your favorite axiom about time here.
Insert your favorite axiom about time here.

Approaching the downtown post office a couple of weeks ago, I glanced up at the Town Clock to check the time. I’m sure others have been as surprised as I was to see that the hands of the clock were missing! I walked around to look at the other three faces and found the same thing – all of the clock’s hands were gone.

The words of an old song popped into my head: “Does anybody really know what time it is? Does anybody really care?” Without getting into the metaphysical implications of those questions, my simple answer (still in my head) was: yes, I care. That’s why I looked at the clock! Where are the hands?

The next day, the Sentinel ran an article, explaining that the old clockworks (made in 1900) were being replaced with a new electronic clock, and that the hands would be replaced when the work was finished.

That incident got me thinking about the interesting history of our town clock and its journey to its present location. Some of the story came out in the Sentinel story, as staff writer J. M. Brown interviewed historian and native Santa Cruzan Geoff Dunn. Among the interesting facts was that the chimes were shut off in 1929 because neighborhood residents complained about the noise (!?). Another interesting note was that the clock was removed and stored for more than a decade before its placement in the plaza in 1976. Anyone know where it was?

Some of the clock’s earlier history has been covered previously in this blog. The Town Clock was originally a tower that sat atop a 2-½ story mansard-roofed building on Pacific Avenue, built in 1873 by the Oddfellows (a fraternal order). The lofty tower and cupola (plus its central location) made the building a downtown landmark, with its big four-sided clock that could be read from blocks away. Look through the SCPL collection of historic photographs and you’ll notice that clock tower in the background of numerous downtown scenes.    

The front cover image on Leon Rowland’s Santa Cruz: The Early Years (cover design by Michael Banta) was either painted sometime between 1873 and 1899 or painted from a photograph made at that time. It shows the original clock tower. In 1899, the tower was destroyed in a fire. A new tower, re-designed in more of a Spanish Colonial Revival style (as was the rest of the building), stayed put until 1964, and is essentially the same structure that survives today atop its 1976 brick base. Much more recently, a 1995 fire damaged the Town Clock, but not seriously.

A side note about that 1899 photo showing the clock tower after the fire: at the far left, you can see the second County Courthouse (later known as Cooper House). Completed in 1894 after the first courthouse fell victim to the most destructive fire in downtown history, that tall square tower with the pointy roof didn’t last too long. It was removed because of damage from the 1906 earthquake (compare to this later photo). Tall towers on older buildings have not fared well in Santa Cruz. 

Sources (both essential to any local history library):

  • Chase, John L. Sidewalk Companion to Santa Cruz Architecture (3rd ed. 2005)
  • Rowland, Leon. Santa Cruz: The Early Years (1980). Santa Cruz, Calif: Paper Vision Press.





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Michael Bois March 04, 2014 at 12:48 PM
As an Odd Fellow, I can tell you that the local lodge, Santa Cruz #96, sold the clock tower to the city (for $1.01 I believe) in the 60's and they simply kept it in storage until it was placed where it is today.
Mitch Moseley March 04, 2014 at 04:20 PM
I remember that many of the parts and pieces were stored in a fenced area at Harvey West Park back in the early 70's. My brother and I hopped that fence one day and explored. Also of note; as part of the proposal phase of the clock's resurrection, a scale model was built by local craftsman Todd Hebron. Todd was well known as a vendor at the Boardwalk (he had a hot dog stand adjacent to the original bumper cars and the old Walking Charlie game). He was also the creator of the Santa Cruz Wiffle Ball League. Lulu Field was a scale replica of Wrigley Field built in his backyard on Beach Hill.

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