Struck by the Clock

Last days of a tower

Stop the presses! I have an idea. A really good one.

But wait, I guess it’s too late. There are no presses to stop. The presses are gone, actually. Along with everything else that used to be part of the Times-Picayune building on Howard Avenue.

That includes the iconic clock tower that graced – and defined – the newspaper’s campus since it was built in 1968, when the paper ditched its downtown digs for bigger space in Mid City.

Admittedly, the Picayune’s main structure was an architectural eyesore – monolithic, impersonal, bulky, clunky, blocky and chunky. But while it was totally practical and utilitarian – which is what a newspaper should be, after all – the paper’s board of directors found its original design wanting of one particularly ambitious detail: “landmark recognition,” according to a story published in the paper shortly after the building opened.

Hence, the tower was added to the plans at the last minute, a stolid, sturdy addition to the blueprint, looming seven stories above the building, its grounds, the railroad yards, the interstate, the projects, the cemeteries and Orleans Parish Prison, visible from all directions. The flourishing final touch, “symbolic of the traditions of a free press,” as the paper’s promotional ads later pronounced.

(I’m no architectural expert – maybe I’m unable to divine the nuanced expressions of brick and mortar, but: “symbolic of a free press?” It was a clock tower, for crissake, not the Statue of Liberty.)

But it did achieve its intended intent – true landmark recognition – during its 51 years, often the first notable structure on the city skyline encountered by visitors coming in from the airport and all points west. And, as lagniappe, it had its own utilitarian feature: two large clocks, one facing north, one south, “for the convenience of vehicular traffic,” as its architect, Edward Silverstein, so utilitarianly described it.

It had other architectural grace notes as well. The top of the tower – lit at night and imprinted with the name of the newspaper – rotated slowly so that all would know the provenance of this stoic landmark. It was also installed with electronic chimes that rang three times a day – 9 a.m., noon and 5 p.m. – like a factory whistle, just a bit softer for the tender dispositions of newsroom employees, no doubt.

When the chimes stopped ringing goes unrecorded, but it was long before I started working there in 1984. Eventually, the tower top stopped spinning. Symbolic of the building and perhaps the newspaper business itself, the lights eventually went out. And then, at some point a few years ago, the clocks stopped.

When I last visited the property, the one facing south said 4:00. The one facing north said 4:15. A charming epitaph. And such a decidedly New Orleans characteristic; getting things wrong in the most delightful ways. And so that’s when time stood still when the wrecking ball took it down in October. To clear the land for an indoor golf facility.

Let that sink in. Golf. Indoors. Is that how lazy we’ve become as a society. Where will it end? Pretty soon they’ll make sports like surfing and rock climbing indoor activities so that nobody ever has to go outside and…oh, wait. Never mind.

But I digress. Back to the tower. And an opportunity lost for our city. And my great, fantastic, forward thinking idea that it’s now too late to implement. And it was this: Lee Circle.

That’s right. Why didn’t we secure the tower and move it to Lee Circle? Boffo, right? Relocated there, it could have salved the wounds of our intractable, bitter, divisive, hand-wringing civic discourse and dissent over what to do with the spaces vacated by Confederate monuments. Or, at least, that one.

With the Times-Picayune clock tower installed there, it would represent – kinda, sorta, maybe – what both sides of the argument want to achieve, want to see put there, want to represent for our city. A link between the past, the present and the future. A beacon of hope, home, liberty, the free press and all that. Something meaningful, historic, nostalgic. And one clock could face north, the other one south. The implications are staggering.

But, woulda, coulda, shoulda. It’s too late to implement my master plan, my grandiose scheme, my healing touch. Because the clock finally – and literally – ran out for the beloved Times-Picayune tower.

It was a dark day in October.  Apparently some time between 4:00 and 4:15.


 

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