Cross Campus, an afternoon this September: As a service dog with a “DO NOT PET” vest attracts a crowd of petters, as a gaggle of first-years running late relay their precise location to their meal buddy, and as a DS student splays belly-down on the grass en route to a full-body stain, I ask a classmate a trivia question, “Without looking around, where is the nearest building with a clock face?”
She responds, “I have no idea, but given that you’re sitting across from WLH, I’m going to say it’s there.” Yalies never lack intuition.
The two metal faces of the William L. Harkness Hall clock watch over campus from the fourth-floor tower. The clock is in a sorry state. The southeast face is stuck at 11:06, perpetually panicking about its 11:59 paper deadline.(1) On the southwest face, the hour hand slumps towards six but the minute hand is bent in half, held up by a rope tied to the roof. The clock is a beauty that has outlived its purpose.
Before trains annihilated time and space by shrinking the world and imposing regional time standards, a town’s (functioning) public-facing clock determined the hour.(2) But time-keeping technology has rapidly miniaturized during the last century. People no longer need to go to the town square to check the time: The clocktower is in our pocket.
But some people still obsess over these ancient vestiges. Enter two Yalies. At their request, I will call them Victor Wilde and [REDACTED]. The duo spent their Yale careers summiting roofs, mapping tunnels, and, central to our story, attempting to fix the WLH clock.
Their pseudonyms fit them. Victor Wilde, who crafted his name to combine Victor Hugo and Oscar Wilde, definitely shares their flair for the dramatic. [REDACTED] worked for the government after he graduated and asked that his name (and his general existence) be wiped from any future retelling of our explorations.(3)
Through architectural know-how and rumors passed down from older friends, the pair figured out that the clock’s mechanism sat in the tower directly behind its two faces. In the spring of 2019, they showed me their (attempted) restoration work. Wilde bypassed the fourth floor’s southeastern door. If I told you how, I’d have to kill you.(4)
I recently retraced our steps to the clock room to jog my memory of that day. I crouched under whirring HVAC ducts. Slats of daylight from triangular windows illuminated dust flecks. Yellow CAUTION CONSTRUCTION tape drooped from doorways. White HOT WATER RETURN pipes ran along the wall at hip-level. A blue metal box Sharpied TOILET EXHAUST whined above my head. Graffiti warned me I was entering the BAD SHEEP ZONE (whatever that means). In an empty nook, a right-handed desk and a pair of dusty office chairs surrounded a semi-circular table. Would the attic be a productive space for a seminar? Do maintenance workers conduct workshops on evaporator coil repair techniques here? Or have these pieces been condemned to furniture purgatory?
Halfway down the hall, the holy grail awaited in room 403. But the mechanical heart of the clock lay behind Cormaxed doors. I couldn’t enter.
When I told Wilde I’d failed to get back in, he scolded me: “No door is ever locked, it’s just a matter of how bad we want to get through it.”
Wilde recounted the evening when he and [REDACTED] first visited the clock. The pair entered the control room, about ten feet on each side, and saw the clock’s machinery behind a clear plastic shield. He moved the box because [REDACTED] was a “scaredy cat” and didn’t want to be the one to touch it.(5) When he investigated the motor—a General Electric Model 26138—the oil got on his hands, and he now wonders whether his black fingerprints still stain the plastic. They tried to start the motor. It choked and choked and choked and started!
But only ever so briefly. A moment of hope crushed by the onset of reality.
Unfortunately, few resources exist for DIY antique clock tower repair. [REDACTED] tried to bring in Kirtland Crump, a Wallingford man who repaired Yale’s clocks for two decades, but Crump told him that Yale stopped funding or allowing repairs around 2005. [REDACTED] and Wilde ran out of time and energy. The clock still does not tick.
I tried to contact Crump, but he did not answer the phone. He works from home, and it felt like an invasion of privacy to show up unannounced AND not have a paid job to offer him. [REDACTED] used his handy dandy government sleuthing skills to find that Crump had not updated his website since 2019.
Our only hope had retired. The clock would languish.
But time is a circle. For weeks, I subjected everyone I met to stories about the clock. I wasn’t sure whether I wanted to win the clock an admirer or a fixer. But I knew I needed to get back into that room.
Enter: “Junior,” an underclassman.(6) He’d visited the clock room the week before, and he insisted on taking me before it got locked again.
Once Junior opened the door, my hands began to tremble. The room is white, but more decaying than sterile. When I touched the wall, paint chipped off the red brick and crunched under my feet like sand. I rolled the plastic cage away from the clock’s mechanism (but did not see Wilde’s fingerprints). Junior pushed the counterweight. The machine ticked in response, keeping its rhythm for the next few minutes, soundtracking our conversation.
Junior had visited the room with a group of engineering students. “It’s really not a very complicated clock,” he explained. “Everything should work if we have power… but the counterweight is too light.” He had that twinkle in his eye that can be described only as romantic confidence. He’d make this work, he’d find a way.
Even if Junior doesn’t fix the clock, he won’t be the last Yalie to venture into that room. A handful of us, captivated by the ignored and unsolved, will continue to look upward. One day, I hope to walk through Cross Campus, glance at the building across from me, and notice two old clock faces ticking again. I’ll have a rogue detail-fiend with oily hands to thank.
(1) Yalies generally don’t think in cardinal directions, especially because New Haven’s streets aren’t north-south. I orient myself by thinking of Science Hill as north and a little east from Old Campus. So the southwest face of the WLH clock overlooks Cross Campus and the southeast face looks towards College Street. Got it? Good.
(2) I encountered the phrase “annihilation of time and space” in Rebecca Solnit’s River of Shadows, a summer reading book my junior year in high school that I did not read. I liked the phrase, though.
(3) He has since stopped working for the government, earning the nickname [unredacted], but that feels a little complicated for our narrative.
(4) When I went up to the attic, someone had propped open the northwestern door with a broomstick and jammed the mortise with cardboard. When I went back a few days later, the door had been closed. I’d like to think that a pair of pretentious self-seekers shut it to keep others out of the space they had “discovered.”
(5) I asked Wilde if he really remembered all of these details, to which he snarkily responded, “You can’t fact-check me and nor can your professor.” When he was recounting the “weird yellow wash” of the clock room, he wondered whether he was “nostalga-ing” this memory. We may have an unreliable interviewee on our hands…
(6) Junior agreed to appear in this story so long as he had a cool pseudonym. After dangling a great name in front of me, he changed his mind, and will now be stuck with a moniker that simply makes fun of his age.