At long last, a sidewalk clock returns to Gay Street on Friday
by Jack Neely
Just in time for the busiest part of the Christmas season, the errant Hope Clock, or something a whole lot like it, will materialize on Gay Street this Friday.
For 107 years, the clock shared the time with sidewalk pedestrians.
Originally installed in 1897 in front of Hope Brothers Jewelry on the 500 block of Gay Street, the 12-foot-tall elaborate, ornamented cast-iron clock became an instant icon. The jewelry store was so proud of the clock that in newspaper ads, Hope located itself â“at the Big Clock.â” All Victorian-era Knoxvillians knew where that was. It became a handy meeting place, something you could see above the sea of big hats on the cityâ’s busiest street, even during Christmas-shopping season. Newcomers to the crowded, sooty, chaotic, politically turbulent city might have read poignant meaning into the word, spelled vertically in large letters on the clockâ’s pedestal: HOPE.
Mechanics admired the state-of-the-art works of the timepiece, which was quieter than some big clocks. In 1900, a Knoxville Journal reporter, describing a post-midnight walk around downtown, noted that 3 a.m. was the only time of day when Gay Street was quiet enough to hear the Hope Clock tick. On the morning of Nov. 11, 1918, as thousands of revelers hanged the Kaiser in effigy, all eyes turned to the Hope Clock to watch it tick down to the official end of the Great War, at 11 a.m. A year later, it stood tall among the rabble of a bizarre lynch mob; rioters looted shops nearby, but left the clock alone. The early UT Vols glee clubs paraded around it, the night before big home games.
In the 1920s, Hope Brothers moved to a new location, across the street and a block down, and took the clock with them.
A few years later, during the Depression, Hope Brothers downscaled into a more modest place on Market Square, and a new concern called Kimballâ’s took over their Gay Street store. Custody of the old clock apparently came with the deal; Kimballâ’s painted the pedestal black, obscuring the HOPE. A later generation would know it as the Kimballâ’s Clock. The new store put its own logo on the clock face, and kept the clock in good repair, eventually replacing the works with an electronic system.
As the Kimballâ’s clock, it witnessed more Gay Street parades, like President Rooseveltâ’s in 1936, then the jubilation at the end of another world war. In the 1960s, the Gay/Way pseudo-modernist facelift of Gay Street worked around it. Through decades of downtown decline, it kept good time.
In 2004, a renovating downtown was disappointed when Kimballâ’s Jewelry left downtown, just when the long-troubled 400 block seemed to be perking up with new developmentâ"and dismayed when they took the old clock with them. It looked strange, gone.
You could argue that itâ’s 2007, and weâ’re past the era when a public clock serves any practical purpose.
Most people wear watches, after all, and these days an even larger percentage carry cell phones, which show the time. We donâ’t see visible clocks, big and high where everyone can see them, as much as we used to. The pragmatist, never unrepresented in Knoxvilleâ’s leadership, would shrug that nobody needs a public clock except maybe the homeless, and then only to get to the mission meal on time.
But for some reason, even those of us with working watches glanced at the big clock first.
Downtown boosters have offered to buy the original clock, or work out some arrangement to return it home to Gay Street. Kimballâ’s has declined all entreaties. The jewelry store announced its intention to re-install the antique on front of their new store beside Kingston Pike, where billboards are enormous and cars rush by at 40 m.p.h. In the three and a half years since Kimballâ’s uprooted the clock, the clock has not reappeared in public. Iâ’m sure thereâ’s something I donâ’t understand. Those of us who donâ’t own anything irreplaceable may be at a disadvantage here, but maybe keeping a well-known icon away from public view is one of the cherished privileges of ownership. And, of course, thereâ’s a philosophy especially strong in East Tennessee that the right to be contrary implies the obligation to be contrary. Youâ’ve got to respect that.
Anyway, after the city and other downtown boosters found there was no way to legally stop Kimballâ’s from uprooting the icon, a melancholy group gathered for conversation in a nearby pub, where for years the original clock had reminded patrons not to stay out all night. Among them were several community leaders, downtown developers Wayne Blasius and Ann Marie Tugwell, insurance agent John Worden, and PR man Chuck Morris. Like the irrepressibly cheerful Whos of Whoville, undaunted by Grinchery, they determined to move ahead. If they couldnâ’t restore the old clock, they determined, theyâ’d get a timely look-alike.
At fund-raisers in downtown pubs, they raised hundreds of dollars in small bills. Photographer Gary Heatherly contributed the proceeds of his Knoxville book. Dewhirst Properties, Morris Creative, InSite Development, and a dozen other organizations, including several downtown businesses and the City of Knoxville, donated to the effort. In all, more than 200 individuals and organizations donated to restore the landmark. Because there are so few genuine items like the Hope Clock, thereâ’s national business in replica Victorian sidewalk clocks, but some of the early estimates of the cost were intimidating. But they found a handsome one of cast aluminum unexpectedly close, through a Sevier County supplier.
It will be deeded immediately to the city. â“That way no one could take this one away from downtown,â” says Blasius. It will be unveiled at 5:30 p.m. Friday in front of the restaurant/nightclub Sapphire, near Union Avenue, the precise location of its predecessor.
By a conservative estimate, since 1897 the original Hope Clock witnessed more than 500 parades.
This Fridayâ’s Santa Claus Parade will be the first for the new one.
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