City Hall clock tower takes on new glow after three-year restoration

Aside from a celebrity, what 98-year-old gets a facelift and other “structural improvements”?

Milford City Hall for one, as the building's clock tower recently finished a restoration project that will, in fact, ensure it's not only looking good but also still standing for its 100th birthday bash in 2016.

“City Hall is one of Milford's landmarks, one of the things people identify with our city,” said Mayor Ben Blake. “And it was clear that if we didn't invest now in restoring the clock tower, we would have been paying far more down the road to try to save it.”

The rescue effort began in late 2011 when then-Public Works Director Bruce Kolwicz hired master craftsman Bob Daniels to begin repairing and restoring the clock tower. It quickly became clear, however, that the tower needed more than just a cosmetic fix.

“When we first started this, the clock tower was in poor condition,” said Daniels, who described himself as the project foreman, on the job from start to finish. “We definitely knew there was more damage than we could see at first, but we couldn't tell the level of damage until we started to unpeel the onion.”

Blake's administration, under current Public Works Director Christopher Saley, made the restoration project a priority.

“The more work that was done and the more they dug into the wood, it really became a recovery project. The clock tower was on the verge of collapse. Because of the seeping water, the inside of the whole front foyer in City Hall was coming down,” Blake explained.

The clock tower atop City Hall dates back to the early 1900s. The previous town hall was destroyed by fire in 1915 and, one year later, the cornerstone was laid for a new town hall.

City Hall in its present form, adorned by the clock tower, was finished in August 1917, at a total construction cost of $151,000. Adjusted for inflation, the City Hall building — complete with clock tower — would cost more than $3.3 million to build today, far more than the estimated total cost of $130,000 to $150,000 to repair and restore the leaky clock tower. Blake said the cost was covered by municipal bonds, issued when the restoration began in 2011.

Over its course, the restoration has included many facets. The clock tower was made watertight with the installation of a continuous copper seam, among other measures. Rotted wood was removed and replaced. Damage from water seepage was repaired; structural issues were mitigated. And protective paint was applied, including gilding on the clock tower dome.

Blake said the cost of construction material, supplies and outside contractors totaled $108,394.88, with architectural and engineering fees adding another $18,850 to the project total. The remainder of the work was done by in-house municipal labor, funded through regular wages, and also by seasonal temporary workers, like Daniels. Seasonal/temporary accounts are included in the municipal budget.

Blake estimated that more than 3,385 total in-house and seasonal/temporary hours were devoted to the clock tower restoration, excluding outside contractors, painters and gilders. Of that total, the in-house and seasonal temporary workers logged 502 man-hours in 2011-12; 1,858 hours in 2012-13; and 1,025 hours in 2013-14, the Mayor said.

Some workers put more than hours into the restoration.

“Bob Daniels put his heart and soul into this project,” Blake said, noting that workers were challenged by the logistics of working 65-feet above street level, and always were at the mercy of the weather. “The construction survived storms Irene and Sandy, and we were certainly thankful for that.”

One of the final phases of the restoration was applying gold leaf to the tower dome. In addition to its esthetic qualities, Daniels noted that gold leaf doesn't rust or tarnish and so offers a very durable protective coating.

Blake said the specialty work of gilding the dome was contracted out to John Canning & Co., Ltd, also known as Canning Studios. According to the company website, this Connecticut firm has done architectural restoration on such landmarks as the White House, the United States Capitol, Battell Chapel at Yale University, Grand Central Terminal in New York City, and the Boston Public Library.

“Particularly with our valuable historical structures, things need to be tended to,” said Richard Platt, longtime City Historian. “There are certain quality of life things we should be paying attention to. They are part of our heritage — in this case, what makes Milford unique.”