Monday 26 August 2013

The Scotiabank Clock

The theme of civic clocks is continued in this post with some notes about the Scotiabank clock. The term "Scotiabank clock" may not be a familiar one, so let me set the scene a little.

I described earlier how the old Post Office got its clock installed in its tower, just in time for New Years in 1907. The new clock occupied a prominent place physically, three storeys above St. George's Square and also projecting out into the Square in front of the Post Office. Such a position was considered decorous because of the importance of time to civic life and of the importance of the Federal government in delineating it.

Some 53 years later, however, the old Post Office (or "Customs House", as it had become in the meantime) was demolished. The demolition was a controversial and emotional issue at the time, and a discussion of it can be found in Gilbert Stelter's "Buildings and Guelph's character" in Guelph: Perspectives on a century of change (pp. 196ff). For present purposes, what matters is that the destruction of this building in 1960 also meant the removal of the City's central timepiece.

It seems that the importance, practical or symbolic, of having a civic clock in St. George's Square was not lost on the designers of the new building. One of the first articles in the Mercury about the as-yet unnamed structure makes special note of a clock, among its other, more modern conveniences (26 Jan 1961):

St. George's Sq. to get new clock
... Eleavator service to all floors will be installed for general public and tenant convenience, and the building is to be completely air-conditioned.
... An item of interest to all citizens concerning the construction of the modern building is the fact that a clock will be installed on the face of the building where it can be conveniently seen by all.
Convenience, rather than decorum, was an important attribute of modernist architecture. So, if a clock were to make sense at all in the new building, it would have to be as a convenience.

Construction of the new building began in April, by which time it had become known that the main tenant would be the Bank of Nova Scotia (or Scotiabank). Again, the Mercury makes special note of the fact that the need for a clock has not been overlooked (5 April 1961):

... A clock will once again look down over the square, but as will be seen in the architect's sketch of the new building there is only one face. The city council, however, wish the clock to have two faces, the other on Wyndham St.
Almost everyone in Guelph must, from force of habit, have looked up to see the time on the old customs building clock in St. George's Sq. since the building was demolished late last year.
Although Guelphites would have their clock, they would still have to change their habits to find it, as the architect's sketch shows:

Whereas the Customs House clock was perched up above the main entrance in the center of the front elevation and projecting forward into space, the new clock would be between the first and second storeys, displaced to the side of the building, and flush with its surface. And just one face.

The building turned out follow the sketch closely, as can be seen in this postcard from about 1965:

(The postcard was made by the Mutual Wholesale Stationary Limited, London, Ont., and has no message written on it except for "7/19/69, Carol Ridler." Courtesy of John Parkyn.)

The convenience of this arrangement is easy to see. The clock face is close to the sidewalk, so that people need not crane their necks up or to the side to view it. Also, in minimalist, modernist fashion, the clock has no face and no numerals. Instead, in the manner of Aarne Jacobsen's "City Hall clock", it has lines to indicate the divisions of the hours. Less is more!

On Wednesday, November 15, the hands were set in motion for the first time (Mercury, 17 Nov. 1961, "Newest clock in operation"). The building itself officially opened the next Monday, November 20.

It is not clear how this clock was received by Guelphites who still looked up for the time in St. George's Square. However, Verne McIlwraith, a member of the newly-formed Guelph Historical Society, professed himself disappointed and suggested that the old Post Office clock should be kept in public view as an accoutrement to a building in Royal City Park, along with the old City Hall bell (22 Nov. 1961):

Suggests City Hall Bell located Royal City Park
Council also has the old clock that was removed from the original post office building when it was razed to be replaced by the disappointing new structure.
If desired it could be arranged so that the old clock could be housed in the same bell-tower on the Royal City Park building.
The proposed building never appeared. What become of the old clock, I do not know.

In the meantime, it seems that the people in Guelph got out of the habit of getting the time from the Scotiabank clock. It remained in place until quite recently, when it was covered up by new Scotiabank signage. Have a look at the face of the building in the Google Street View image:

View Larger Map

Notice how the orange Scotiabank sign that wraps around the building between the first and second storeys covers up the location of the clock. I believe that this new signage went up in 2006. In 2005, Scotiabank applied to the City of Guelph for a variance to put up a large new sign, to compete with the new signage on neighbouring banks. According to the City Council Meeting minutes (20 May 2005), the bank wanted to permit a "24.0 square metre first storey building sign and to permit a 18 square metre second storey building sign." The City refused. It appears that the bank went ahead later with the first storey sign, thus completing the removal of the civic clock from St. George's Square. No one appears to have noticed.

Of course, time has moved on. The correct time is just as important today as in yesteryear. However, people get it from other technologies, e.g., their cell phones. So, we look down, not up, for the local time, and our civic space reflects this fact.

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