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High time the bell rang again
01:00 AM EDT on Friday, April 28, 2006
From a distance, they glow like flying saucers over Providence Street. The illuminated clock faces in the tower now turning heads and slowing traffic past the Royal Mills had not shined for perhaps 60 years.
But to the oldest residents of this former manufacturing hub, it is as familiar as the daily trek generations of workers made to the sprawling textile plant along the Pawtuxet River.
For them, it was a warm reunion late last month when the four-faced clock atop the 100-foot tower suddenly came alive. It has since glowed nightly, marking every hour – from 8 a.m. to 8 p.m. – with the tolling of a bronze bell that long ago roused mill workers from their beds and signaled the end of each grueling shift.
For a town now struggling with joblessness and stalled redevelopment, the clock and the bell powerfully evoke the era when thriving industries lined the river and many of the town's villages were established.
As for the mill workers, "Their life was run by that clock," said Joseph Gardosik, a 1972 West Warwick High School graduate and the project manager for Baltimore-based Struever Bros. Eccles & Rouse, the company converting the long-idle landmark into luxury apartments and condominiums.
THE PRECISE AGE of the clockwork is uncertain. A clock and a bell were installed in 1891, but in 1919 a fire that started in the tower destroyed much of the complex, leaving only the stone skeleton of the tower that Struever Bros. inherited. Some or all of the clockwork was destroyed and replaced; the bell now hanging there was cast in 1920 by the E. Howard Clock Co.
When Struever Bros. took over the tower, much of the clockwork mechanism was intact. But one of the four clock faces was missing, and the developer had one crafted to match the remaining three.
The 1919 blaze destroyed the wood-frame, Victorian cupola that had crowned the tower, and it was never rebuilt. But the restoration of the clock and the reactivation of the bell delighted nearby residents, who have been regularly visiting the site and phoning to register their approval.
"It's part of our mill heritage, part of our history," said Donald Carpenter, who was born in West Warwick in 1939 and has served as president of the Pawtuxet Valley Preservation and Historical Society.
"I was elated when I saw that going," Carpenter said. "It was an antiquity that was sort of lost. We can have all these modern conveniences, but to look up at nighttime and see that illuminated and hear the bell – it's awesome!"
INSIDE the granite, cobblestone tower several modern upgrades are evident. A shiny steel cable, for example, now connects the striker to the clock room 30 feet above the bell.
The Royal Mills clock originally was pendulum controlled, with two weights – like the ones in a grandfather clock – gradually descending 100 feet every week before being raised again by hand. In their place, Gardosik had an electric motor installed. Inside the clock room, workers removed the corroded steel rods that extended to each face to control the dials. Now, an electric impulse unit at every face is wired to the master clock to synchronize the system.
The master clock, which also controls the bell's tolling, relies on a satellite, keeping time with help from a radio signal sent from a remote atomic clock. This spring, it adjusted automatically for daylight savings time.
In place of incandescent bulbs, Gardosik had halogen lights installed, and he ordered the missing east dial replaced.
FROM Providence Street, the clock closely resembles the images in iconic,
sepia-toned historical photographs of the town and in a mural inside
Town Hall of a wizard – the high school's mascot – riding
a bolt of lighting through the Royal Mills' tallest tower.
The epoxy paint used on the dials cost $150 a gallon, and the company spent $10,000 on the glass alone, according to David Seay, owner of the Regulator Time Co., in Manhattan, Kan., which led the restoration.
"It really is a beautiful landmark," Seay said in a recent telephone interview. "I put my heart and soul in it. It looks just like it did."
Seay worked 12-hour days from March 14 to March 27, climbing a frigid, steep, narrow metal ladder every morning to reach the clock room. (Seven electricians had passed on the project, said Seay, a 56-year-old amateur harmonica player.)
SEAY'S COMMITMENT to authenticity has delighted history buffs. And political figures are also overjoyed.They see the lighting of the clock tower as a symbol of the town's rebirth after decades of economic malaise.
West Warwick is one of the state's poorest communities, and town officials hope the redevelopment of several mills will balloon property tax receipts and draw wealthy residents to support local merchants.
In his recent "State of the Town" address, Town Council President John J. Flynn focused heavily on mill redevelopment. And Council member Leo J. Costantino Jr., posting the address on his Web site, published a photo of the clock tower at twilight under the headline, "A Bright Time for West Warwick."
The clock has also put the developers in a celebratory mood. Albeit a missed public relations opportunity, the March 27 lighting signaled a major construction milestone, company officials say.
The Struever Bros. local leasing office will open next month and the first 91 apartments will be ready on Aug. 1. Quentin Chafee, the project's development director, said he originally planned to turn off the clock lights after the successful test last month and relight them at a formal ceremony.
"My first reaction was, 'Turn it off, turn it off, let's have a party!'" Chafee said. "We missed a golden marketing opportunity. But the local reaction has come flooding in. They are all excited to have their mill coming back to life."
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