Dorchester’s ‘Keeper of the Clock’ makes sure time never stands still
Jeffrey Gonyeau’s job title sounds like it belongs to an elderly bearded character who lives in a world where time is fickle, a place ripped from the deepest nooks of J.K. Rowling’s imagination.
For more than a decade, Gonyeau has been the unofficial Keeper of the Clock, a task bestowed on him following years of grass-roots work with city officials and community organizers to restore and resurrect the ornate tower clock that sits prominently in Ashmont’s Peabody Square.
“There should be like regalia or something” to go with the name, said the 49-year-old timekeeper, who every Sunday treks to the square to hand-wind and reset the Dorchester landmark. “Some academic hood with colors.”
Gonyeau’s journey to becoming “keeper” began almost 20 years ago, when he moved to the Ashmont area from Cambridge.
He was enticed by the sense of community there, he said. And he was immediately drawn to the clock. As a history buff with a background in preservation, he was fascinated by the details of the gargoyle-like dog heads that grace its four sides, and the leafy ornamental trim that races up the corners of its blocky top.
He also liked the way the roughly 15-foot-tall clock commanded the neighborhood’s attention, pulling together the firehouse, the Peabody Square apartments, and All Saints Church, all vestiges of the late 19th century.
“It’s so unusual and beautiful,” said Gonyeau, who perks up at the mention of the rich history of Peabody Square, a sliver of the Ashmont neighborhood that looks as though it were plucked from an English village. “I don’t think there are many places in the city that are this small that have so many significant buildings around it, and the clock fits right into that, in the very center.”
The mechanical clock sits on the corner of Dorchester Avenue and Ashmont Street, with its original, prickly-looking pineapple finial, a symbol of welcome.
The clock, specially designed by an architect, was manufactured by the E. Howard Company, the predominant clock maker of its era. It was erected in 1910.
In the mid-1970s, according to the Dorchester Historical Society, the city’s parks department, which was responsible for the clock’s maintenance, removed some of its innards and installed an electric motor to drive the gears.
By the time Gonyeau had moved to the area in 1997, the clock had stopped, left to endure New England’s scorching summers and frigid winters without ever telling passersby the hour of day. Parts of the top, which holds the four clock faces, had rotted. The electric motor that made it tick was dead.
Gonyeau set to work. In 1999, he marshaled neighbors to advocate for its restoration. With the support of the late mayor Thomas M. Menino’s administration, the clock was dismantled and shipped to the Balzer Family Clock Works company in Maine, where it underwent extensive repairs. In 2003, it was rededicated to much fanfare, and Gonyeau was given a key — and a title.
A document written by the Dorchester Historical Society about the clock’s history and restoration credited Gonyeau as a coordinator who “dogged the project from beginning to end.”
“It was a great early way that we really started cooperating together as neighbors and neighborhood associations,” Gonyeau said of the joint effort. “The energy and momentum that built up after that led to a lot of other really great things.”
Linda Balzer remembers taking on the project to refurbish the clock with her husband, Rick. (The couple also restored a clock that sits in South Boston and also needs to be wound.)
The large stack of documents she keeps about the Peabody Square monument serves as a reminder of what needed to be done.
“Oh, my God, you don’t want to know,” Balzer said in a telephone interview from Maine. “It was awful before. It looked real bad.”
But most of all, she remembers Gonyeau’s demeanor and drive to help revitalize a city landmark.
“Working with those people was just wonderful. Jeff’s great; he’s very enthusiastic about the history of Dorchester, and the different artifacts,” Balzer said. “And he really fell in love with this clock.”
These days, Gonyeau keeps his focus on the clock’s general upkeep.
He arrives every Sunday, key in hand, following church services across the street, and walks up to the thigh-high black fence that wraps around the clock. He slips through the gate’s opening, steps up onto the granite plinth that the clock stands on, and slides the key into the lock of a metal access panel.
Teetering on the edge of the plinth, he opens the panel and peers inside. The soft “tick-tock-tick-tock” of the moving parts is drowned out by roaring traffic and honking horns.
Gonyeau picks up the small hand crank that rests on a shelf inside, and connects it to the clock mechanism. He gives it several hard turns, lifting the 132-pound counterweight that regulates the pendulum. The noise sounds like a taut fishing line being reeled in.
If the time needs adjusting, Gonyeau fiddles with a notched dial that moves the clock’s wooden hands high above. Some days, he reaches down and picks up a small oil can hidden inside the pillar, and spritzes the gears, dabbing the excess oil with a cotton swab.
His work is over in a matter of seconds, but it will keep the clock running for the week. If he forgets to come back the following Sunday — even if he’s a little late — he knows he’ll likely hear about it.
“What’s really surprising is, I get calls,” said Gonyeau, adding that employees at the nearby Ashmont Grill use it as a reference when closing down at night. “You think everybody’s got a watch or their cellphone . . . But they get really annoyed when the clock stops.”
Not long after uttering those words, as Gonyeau stood beside the landmark, a shout came from a man across the street in a pickup truck bearing the Ashmont Grill logo.
“Hey, Jeff!” the man yelled in jest, across traffic. “Keep that thing wound, will ya?”