Let’s take a moment to appreciate the clock tower. On city streets and town squares across America, these noble sentinels ring out the time of day and help keep us from missing trains or being late for job interviews. Though every tower has its own history and purpose, some (ahem) rise above the rest. Here are 7 of the most venerable, famous, and unusual clock towers in the country.
7 Iconic Clock Towers Worth Making Time For
1. Independence Hall, Philadelphia, PA
Two of the most important documents in United States History — the Declaration of Independence and the U.S. Constitution — were signed beneath the elegant clock tower of this celebrated building. In colonial times, the hall was known as the Pennsylvania State House, and the clock tower once housed the State House bell, now famously called the Liberty Bell.
The bell got its name from the inscription that wraps around its crown: “Proclaim Liberty Throughout All the Land Unto All the Inhabitants thereof.” Inspired by the message of universal freedom, abolitionists began to refer to the bell as the “Liberty Bell.” In 1835, an abolitionist newspaper used the new name in print and it’s stuck ever since.
How the bell got its crack is less clear. Though colorful stories abound, the most likely explanation is that it developed a thin crack after several decades of regular use. That narrow gap was actually widened in 1846 in an effort to repair the bell, but when another long, hairline crack developed, the bell was retired.
2. Wrigley Building, Chicago, IL
Known as the “Jewel of the Magnificent Mile,” the ornate, Spanish baroque-style building at the intersection of Michigan Avenue and the Chicago River was home to the William Wrigley chewing gum company for almost 100 years. The clock tower was inspired by La Giralda, a minaret attached to Seville Cathedral in Spain. The 11-story tower rises to 398 feet above the pavement. Each clock face is over 19 feet wide and the minute hands are over 9 feet long.
3. Ferry Building Clock, San Francisco, CA
Gracing the waterfront just a few blocks from the Esurance headquarters in San Francisco, this tower is one of the city’s most recognizable landmarks. Constructed in 1898, the Ferry Building was a bustling transportation hub for decades. A ferry ride was the only way to reach the city from across the bay until the Bay Bridge opened in 1936. When traffic moved to the bridges, the Ferry Building fell into decades of neglect, hidden by a double-decker freeway built along the waterfront in the ‘50s.
In 1989, the Loma Prieta earthquake damaged the freeway (and stopped the Ferry Building clock at 5:04 pm, the time of the quake). The freeway was torn down and the Ferry Building’s beauty was rediscovered. This iconic clock tower now stands above an upscale food marketplace and 3 weekly farmer’s markets. This year, in honor of the Panama-Pacific International Exposition’s centennial, the clock tower was adorned with 11-foot-tall, illuminated numerals reading “1915,” just as it was a century ago.
4. Sather Tower (Campanile), Berkeley, CA
Modeled after the famed Campanile tower in Venice, Italy, this tower is another prominent Bay Area landmark, easily visible from across the Bay. Rising 307 feet above the University of California campus, it’s the world’s third tallest bell and clock tower. Interestingly, the tower also holds approximately 20 tons of ancient fossils, most of them excavated from the La Brea tar pits in Los Angeles. The fossils were stored there in 1913, when the tower was under construction, because the site was convenient to the paleontology department in nearby Beacon Hall. Students still come to the Campanile to study them.
5. Allen-Bradley Clock Tower, Milwaukee, WI
The most famous 4-faced clock in the world is unquestionably the Great Clock in Elizabeth Tower at London’s Palace of Westminster. (Though this clock is commonly known as “Big Ben,” the name originally referred to the clock’s largest bell, not the clock or tower itself.) But London’s iconic timepiece pales in comparison to the huge Allen Bradley Clock Tower at the Rockwell Automation facility in Milwaukee. Each of its faces measures over 40 feet across, compared to the Westminster clock’s 23 feet. For almost 50 years, the Allen Bradley clock was the largest 4-sided clock in the world until the Mecca Royal Clock Hotel Tower in Saudi Arabia overshadowed it in 2010.
6. St. Michael’s Church, Charleston, SC
Dating from 1761, this historic church steeple is North America’s oldest clock tower. The bells, added in 1764, have chimed to announce church services, the time of day, and other events large and small for over 250 years. The tower’s survival through fires, hurricanes, earthquakes, and wars is remarkable. Not only was it a target for enemy guns during the Revolutionary and Civil Wars, but the 186-foot-tall steeple also sank 8 inches following an 1886 earthquake.
The bells themselves have their own colorful history — they were captured by British troops in 1782, burned by General Sherman’s army while stashed away in Columbia during the Civil War, and damaged by Hurricane Hugo in 1989. Twice, the bells have crossed the Atlantic to be recast at their original foundry in England.
7. St. Louis Cathedral, New Orleans, LA
It’s only fitting that one of the most haunted cities in America would be home to a seriously haunted clock tower. Located in the heart of the French Quarter, the triple-spired St. Louis Cathedral is the oldest active Catholic cathedral in the U.S. It was completed in 1794 and the central bell tower was added in 1819.
The tower was designed by architect Benjamin Latrobe, who unfortunately died of yellow fever before the tower was completed. Shortly after his death, workers reported strange sounds in the tower and buckets and ladders moving on their own. Other visitors claim that a man innineteenth-century dress sometimes appears in the cathedral nave when the clock bell is chiming. He holds a pocket watch as if timing the bell and vanishes when the pealing stops. Some believe it’s the ghost of New Orleans clockmaker Jean Delachaux, coming back to check in on the clock and bells that he placed in the tower’s façade.