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Timed to perfection: With restoration, Newton City Hall’s 89-year-old clocks are ticking together again

Philip D'Avanza installed the newly repaired gold-leafed clock hands on the cupola at Newton City Hall late last month.
Philip D'Avanza installed the newly repaired gold-leafed clock hands on the cupola at Newton City Hall late last month.David L. Ryan/Globe Staff

In a way, Philip D’Avanza is a time traveler. He repairs clocks — concentrating on the enormous timepieces nestled high up in places of worship and public buildings like Newton’s City Hall, where many have marked the passage of time for decades.

Plying his trade means D’Avanza, of Goffstown, N.H., often will climb high up into buildings in order to examine the workings of a historic tower clock, like the 1809 timepiece he worked on at the Old Groton Meeting House in 2019.

And from a vantage point like that, changes from the passage of time are readily apparent.

“You get into a steeple, you got an 1809 clock. And you’re looking outside the window ... and you are looking out into the 21st century from 1809,” D’Avanza said. “It’s that span, you’re seeing what happened to the community over that time ... it’s just breathtaking.”

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His work can be seen across the region, including in Newton, where he completed his work last month restoring the four 89-year-old clocks mounted in the City Hall’s cupola.

His work means the City Hall clocks are now accurate for the first time in nearly five years, according to Mayor Ruthanne Fuller. It also helps to maintain the integrity of the building, which is listed on state and national registers of historic places, D’Avanza said.

Along with those in Newton and Groton, he has repaired historic clocks in towns across the Northeast and places like the University of New Hampshire.

“I get a lot of fulfillment, taking something that is 150 years old, and bringing it back to life,” D’Avanza said. “Making it function the way it used to function.”

Business for clock repair, including small household timepieces, is steady: He’s working on four major projects now, plus more work from other communities.

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“Anybody who brings something into my shop, the first thing I tell them is ... ‘If you expect this thing in a couple of weeks, you’re in the wrong place,’ " D’Avanza said. " ‘If you want it fixed, you’re in the right place.’ "

Philip D'Avanza prepares to place the newly repaired gold-leafed clock hand at Newton City Hall.
Philip D'Avanza prepares to place the newly repaired gold-leafed clock hand at Newton City Hall. David L. Ryan/Globe Staff

D’Avanza is a tool-and-die man by trade; his earliest foray into clocks came in the early 1970s when he helped a former business partner renovate a two-family house he’d purchased.

They found an old household clock stored in the attic, and his partner offered it to D’Avanza. He took it, and looked around for someone to fix it up.

“I ended up inquiring at a couple of clock shops, [and I] didn’t particularly like the answers I got from them,” D’Avanza said. “I wound up repairing it myself.”

That first job began a career working on clocks, including for a friend who owned a window and sash business. In 1990, that friend approached D’Avanza about repairing the clock in a local church, and D’Avanza imagined a clock on display inside the building.

But his friend had something else in mind: the tower clock mounted in the church’s steeple. D’Avanza was initially reluctant to take the job, having never worked on a clock so large before.

But his friend was undeterred.

“He said to me: ‘Phil, you do these tall case clock movements here all the time, you fix them for me,’ " D’Avanza said. " ‘They’re the same thing, but bigger.’ "

His work often entails not just diagnosing problems and repairing mechanical parts, but reverse engineering centuries-old machines. It’s not like a user’s manual is left next to a clock, or is a Google search away.

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A view of the clock mechanism at Newton City Hall.
A view of the clock mechanism at Newton City Hall.David L. Ryan/Globe Staff

And like an art restorer, he’s not just looking at the original work, but can face other past attempts at repairs and restorations. Picking apart what’s original, what’s not, and how it all works can take, well, time.

“I don’t know of anybody making a comment that is recorded that they intended these things to last 100 years,” D’Avanza said.

Newton City Hall, built in 1932, was designed in the Georgian Revival style by the architectural firm of Allen & Collens, according to Massachusetts Historical Commission filings.

Its central location in the city was fitting, then-Mayor Charles Sinclair Weeks said, according to state records. The site of City Hall would mitigate the sectionalism that arose among Newton’s villages, Weeks observed.

The City Hall clocks — manufactured by the Seth Thomas Clock Co. — aren’t as old as some of the machines D’Avanza has restored. But they incur wear and tear, and require maintenance.

In Newton’s case, D’Avanza repaired the mechanism operating the City Hall’s four tower clocks, mounted over the building’s War Memorial. He also restored one set of redwood arms, complete with fresh applications of 23-karat gold to catch the sunlight. He’ll apply gold leaf to the remaining clock arms in the fall, he said.

(From left) Philip D'Avanza, Newton Budget & Project Specialist Art Cabral, and Newton Mayor Ruthanne Fuller looked over the newly gold-leafed repaired clock hands at Newton City Hall.
(From left) Philip D'Avanza, Newton Budget & Project Specialist Art Cabral, and Newton Mayor Ruthanne Fuller looked over the newly gold-leafed repaired clock hands at Newton City Hall.David L. Ryan/Globe Staff

But the repair raises a question of practicality. In an era of hip smartwatches and ubiquitous phones programmed with apps designed to never, ever let you miss an appointment, what use is a big clock on an old building?

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The answer — like a tower clock — is in plain sight.

Tower clocks are a relic from a time when many couldn’t afford a good quality timepiece, and people depended on a community clock, D’Avanza said. To get the best use of them, they were placed in town commons, mounted high over gathering places where neighbors would meet.

Tower clocks served a purpose and were central to a city or town: “People had a sense of pride and connection to their roots,” he said.

He hopes the restoration of Newton’s City Hall tower clocks helps foster similar pride.

“I try to instill in people a sense of community,” D’Avanza said. “I’d hate to see it go.”

Philip D'Avanza at Newton City Hall as he installed the newly repaired gold-leafed clock hands on the building's clocks.
Philip D'Avanza at Newton City Hall as he installed the newly repaired gold-leafed clock hands on the building's clocks. David L. Ryan/Globe Staff



John Hilliard can be reached at john.hilliard@globe.com.