The Big Clock on Fordham Rd.

| 16 Feb 2015 | 04:49

    The clock was once the pride of the Fordham Rd. area. Before 1988 the Bronx Tower was called the Dollar Savings Bank building, and the clock and the bank seemed inextricably linked. To the south side of the tower, attached to it, is an elegant three-story marble building, built in 1933. It was here that the bank opened its Fordham branch for business. The bank did so well at that location that, in 1950, the 10-story tower was built to house the bank's offices and the huge clock was erected on top. The chronometer was splendorous. Usually accurate and lit up at night, it was an area landmark. It could be seen from a mile or two away, and to describe to someone where you lived, you'd just say, "I'm by the clock."

    The arson-mad 1970s came, and the Bronx deteriorated. The Dollar Savings Bank?which had done well for many years, protecting the holdings of thrifty Bronx savers?was accused in 1977 by the Borough President of redlining certain Bronx neighborhoods, and of taking in much more in deposits than it was willing to give out in mortgages. By the mid-80s, Dollar Savings had been folded into Dry Dock Savings, and the new combined organization sold the building and moved its headquarters to White Plains. The Bronx branch stayed open at the old location until karma caught up with it and it went out of business. In the early 90s, the Fordham Rd. branch was taken over by the Emigrant Savings Bank.

    Recently I walked into the Emigrant Savings branch. The place looks like a bank is supposed to look. Since it was built in 1933, you can bet that the architects?reeling from the banking panic of the early 30s?were mandated to build something that would inspire confidence. The walls are a mix of red and white marble, and the floors are neatly tiled. Five murals hang above the space in which the bankers sit at their solid oak desks. They're by a certain Angelo Magnanti, and depict early Bronx life: from old Jonas Bronck buying land from a group of loinclothed natives to two men on horses crossing the first bridge connecting the Bronx to Manhattan?the old King's Bridge. Today the bank has a lazy-morning feel to it. There aren't many customers about. That might be due to Emigrant's paltry 4.16 rate for its CDs.

    I walked out of the bank and entered the Bronx Tower next door. Its 10 stories are fully occupied by government agencies, the Salvation Army and visiting-nurse services. The floors are well-maintained. I got off at the top floor and tried to work my way up to the clock tower to see if I could spy what the problem was. The door was locked, and I retreated to the lobby. There I met a maintenance worker named Cleto, and asked him how long the clock has been out of service.

    Cleto rubbed his chin and, with a little smile, said, "A long time. That's been out for five to six years at least?maybe more?maybe like eight years. They said they were going to fix it soon. It was supposed to be fixed by now. Maybe it's too expensive to fix."

    He gave me a "What are you going to do?" shrug.

    I started thinking that the clock's failure was a ghostly legacy of Brian G. Hughes, the man who founded the Dollar Savings Bank in 1890 after making his fortune in paper box manufacturing. Hughes was one of New York's greatest pranksters. He loved to bust and deflate people at their most corrupt and pretentious moments. One of his favorite gags was buying alley cats and wagon horses, cleaning them up and entering them in grand animal shows as purebreds. When his mongrels would win awards, Hughes would produce the bills of sale proving that the winning animals were worth at most a few dollars. He once claimed to have funded a South American expedition to capture a rare animal that he called a "reetsa." He arranged for a ship to pull into the west side docks; newsmen fought to get a look at Hughes' rare beast. What came down the gangplank was a common old steer?reetsa is "a steer" spelled backwards.

    He also liked giving it to politicians. Hughes would donate plots of land to New York City to be used as parkland, getting himself lauded by alderman eager to cut the territory up for their own uses. But when they'd get to the "park," they'd find a 2-by-8-foot patch of cement. He once donated to the city what he called a "mansion," located on 147th St. in the Bronx, claiming that Lafayette had lived there. When the city officials showed up they found a broken-down shack.

    Hughes was good at busting thieves. He'd leave an expensive umbrella in a public place; when its thief opened it, he'd be showered?right there before his fellow citizens?by hundreds of small cards reading, "This umbrella was stolen from Brian G. Hughes." He'd also hide in a doorway near Tiffany & Co., drop bags of bogus jewels to the pavement and watch as the local yokels dove for them. Hughes died in 1924 at the age of 75. By all accounts, he was laughing when he met his maker.

    Or maybe Hughes' legacy has nothing to do with it. Maybe the broken clock was just a matter of tightfistedness. When the gods want to destroy you, they first make you miserly?as the Dollar Savings Bank found out the hard way. Parsimony is contrary to human nature. The laws of money?the laws of being human?dictate that if you're to get, you also have to give. One of the mottoes carved into stone on the bank's facade is this slightly offputting one: "If you know how to spend less than you get?you have the philosopher's stone." Maybe spending less means leaving the clock broken, and the hell with how it looks.

    I called the property's landlord?Brooks, Torrey & Scott, Inc., a Connecticut company?to see what I could learn. I had a prejudiced vision of aloof Yankees who didn't mind if their property went to seed, as long as it was in a poor area. The thing sits up in the Bronx sky screaming to the people who live below it that its proprietors don't care about them or their neighborhood; that they're not even worth the time of day.

    One of the firm's partners, Troy Brooks, took the call. "I know. It looks terrible," he said. "We put a lot of money in the building and maintain it well. But you wouldn't believe that every call I get about the Bronx Tower is about that clock."

    Brooks' candor and humility were refreshing, but the clock still doesn't run. I asked him when they would get around to fixing it. Herein lies a lesson: even real estate companies deserve a sympathetic ear.

    "For five years now," he said, "we have had the money to fix the clock on deposit with a man who claimed he could do the job. Five years we wait for this guy to do his work?and it wasn't easy finding him because there are not many people who repair these old building clocks. It took so long because he said he had to make some replacement parts. So recently when he finally gets around to doing the job, we get a call from him. He's now claiming that pigeons have taken over the clock tower and he can't work under those conditions. This, after five years of waiting. We pressed him, and, well, that clock is going to get fixed. It doesn't look good for our firm."

    Brooks asked me if I ever saw the clock lit up at night. I replied that I had. We agreed that it was a thing of translucent magnificence. It was like a little moon that followed you around the Bronx.

    "Well, those lights at night do cause a problem," he said. "It seems like some of the neighborhood people like to take target practice at the clock."

    I saw images of the early 1990s: power-crazed crack dealers standing on Bronx roofs, aiming their 9s at the glowing clock. The horror of these fiends. Maybe they don't deserve the time of night.

    Brooks continued, "I know that clock means a lot to people. If you know of anyone that could get it done quicker, we'd be happy to talk to them."

    I hung up happy, thinking that the Bronx might once again soon get to know what time it is.

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