On a recent morning, as fog was wafting past the tower of San Francisco’s Ferry Building, Dorian Clair quietly climbed the stairwell of the tower’s inner chamber — ascending further into San Francisco’s history with each flight.
For nearly two decades, Clair has made this similar trek every few months to attend to the tower’s original clock which been ticking off time since 1898, the year the Ferry Building opened.
“Most of San Francisco’s neat antiquities are gone,” Clair said, peering into the spinning gears of the aged contraption. “This one is still here.”
The clock was built by the E. Howard & Company of Boston. It survived the 1906 Earthquake which badly damaged the tower. Clair points out a broken window inside the interior shed that houses the clock — likely a casualty of the clock’s swinging parts in the earthquake. Through all the clock has survived — it still keeps pretty good time.
“This is 118 years old,” Clair said. “I’d give it hundreds of more years.”
The clock survived a natural disaster but it nearly didn’t survive a recent remodel project. When the Ferry Building was rebuilt in 2003, Clair said the building managers told him they planned to haul the clock out to sea and dump it — since they lacked the proper paperwork to salvage it.
Clair persuaded them to save it — installing a small electric motor which still powers the clock and doesn’t require winding. Twice a year, Clair climbs the stairs in the wee hours of a Sunday morning to adjust the clock for Daylight Saving Time. He prefers to wait until 4am to change the hour, since that’s the time he gets up anyway.
“This was the city clock of San Francisco and you could see it roughly two miles up Market Street,” Clair said wistfully. “Nobody pays attention to these old clocks anymore — everybody has a cell phone. Including me.”
Clair took his first clock apart 62 years ago. He remembers it vividly because it was his birthday. He was eight.
Since then, he’s repaired thousands of antique clocks at his shop in San Francisco’s Noe Valley. He doesn’t work on modern clocks. There are other people who can tackle those. He looked around his shop stacked high with clocks in every sightline — small pathways cut through the stacks like a rabbit warren. He acknowledged that he’s better at keeping time-keepers than actually keeping time.
“Clock collecting is a disease but it’s a socially acceptable disease,” he deadpanned. “I could be an axe murderer.”
Clair not only keeps the Ferry Building Clock running, he also tends to the 1901 clock in Stanford’s Clock Tower and sometimes the clock tower at U.C. Berkeley. Perched inside his shop is a tower clock from 1750, with gears and paddles that create a cacophony every hour. It requires 504 cranks a week.
“It’s fun to watch the chimes go around and it keeps the cat off the front counter,” Clair said.
It seemed the only recent thing in Clair’s shop was his 20-year old assistant Maxwell Nesbet who works at a desk across a stack of clocks from Dorian’s work area — and who owns the shop’s most belaboring task.
“Winding day,” Nesbet said referring to the Monday ritual. “I wind all the clocks that are running in the shop.”
Clair seemed as impressed as baffled to have someone at such a young age express an interest in fixing antique clocks.
“Max, I think is the only other person I know that’s under 60 that’s interested in this,” Clair said.
Clair lamented the fact that most people now get their time from a smart phone rather than an old clock, although he counts himself among their ranks. Time, he said, is more merciful when it’s not quite so exacting.
“Today we all have a cell phone that’s right within a third of a second,” he said. “ We know exactly what time it is - but does that make life better? Maybe. But not for me.”