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William Barthman’s Sidewalk Clock

How does an idea become a legacy? What makes a landmark?

More than 50,000 people cross the corner of Maiden Lane and Broadway every day. New Yorkers are in constant motion, seldom pausing to look up or down or remind ourselves that we’re living history. If you pause on this corner, you’ll see a clock. The glass is scratched and faded, but it tells the correct time and more importantly, it tells a story. It’s been telling a story in that very ground for over 120 years.

It took more than 2 years to design and install this sidewalk clock in 1897. William Barthman, a jewelry designer with an opulent storefront at that corner (Barthman Jewelry has since moved to Brooklyn), wanted to place a bold, alluring contraption outside his shop to attract customers.

The clock was built by Frank Homm, one of William Barthman’s employees in the jewelry store. Homm was in charge of maintaining it, making minor repairs, and regulating it almost every day, for many years. He was, in fact, the only person who understood how the clock worked.

Imagine you’re standing on this corner in the evening, 120 years ago. Manhattan is lit mostly by gaslight, and it’s dark downtown. Cutting through the darkness is an illuminated clock, ticking into the night. It may be the only source of light around you, as there are hidden bulbs beneath the glass surface, lighting up its face. It captures your attention, as it does generations of New Yorkers, visitors, journalists, and critics.

Frank Homm died in 1917, and without him, William Barthman and his family¬†struggled to take care of the clock. Without Homm and his sophisticated understanding of his innovative contraption, the clock seldom functioned. Plus, the subway grumbled below it, people walked on it all day, and hot sun and heavy rain wore down its exterior. As The Great Depression ravaged New York City, the click stopped keeping New Yorkers’ time. The Barthman family, so ashamed of the broken machine, begun covering it with cardboard to hide it from the public. Within ten years, the clock had gone from a spectacle to a burden.

In the early 1940s, William Barthman replaced Homm’s clock with the one you see today. It has been featured in cinema, photography (most famously captured in Ida Wyman’s 1947 photograph, Sidewalk Clock, which reinvigorated public interest in it), poetry, newspapers, and advertisements.

The clock has come to represent a certain busyness and resilience across generations of New Yorkers. It stayed ticking through the horrors of September 11, 2001, it still worked after Hurricane Sandy, and although it briefly disappeared last summer after its face cracked under a delivery cart, it has returned to its rightful place on the busy Lower Manhattan street corner.

The Barthman clock’s legacy is abundant with innovation, spectacle, and creativity. Over 100 years of New Yorkers have looked down at Maiden Lane and Broadway to check the time, or paused to draw it or write about it or marvel at it. But it’s not landmarked by the city, which means that it could be destroyed, removed, or built upon at any moment.

If every structure with a story got Landmark statue, there would be no space for new buildings. So what structures should be prioritized for receiving this status? What makes a legacy worthy of preserving? How do different mediums of storytelling keep a structure’s history alive, and what is our role in sharing these stories?