Friday, November 12, 2010

Downtown Places: Edmonton Court Clock

Portage Place Clock
Place: Edmonton Court Clock (Map)
Address: Portage Place Mall, 393 Portage Avenue
Unveiled:  1903 (original) and 1987
Maker: Seth Thomas and Company

Portage Place opened in September 1987 but the 'guts' of the clock in Edmonton Court date back to 1903.

Large, ornate public clocks were the rage in most North American cities. New York and Chicago already boasted dozens of them. In 1902 it was considered time that Winnipeg 'got with it'. Council voted in favour of a clock and agreed that it should be placed in one of the most prominent spots in the city: inside the dome of the ca. 1887 city hall.

Local jeweler George Andrew of Andrew and Co. was awarded the contract to procure and install the clock. The maker was Seth Thomas Company in Connecticut and the cost $1900, plus another thousand or so, for installation.

Readying the dome for the clock was no small feat. Andrew had a dozen men on site to build an interior tower to support the workings, pendulum and lighting and then had to hoist it all into place.  There were four clock faces, each 7 feet in diameter, made of crushed glass. The weights used to balance the pendulum weighed 1,000 lbs each.

Another feature of the clock was that it would strike on the hour and half hour. For a bell, council chose to relocate the existing fire bell located in the Market Building behind city hall. It required extra holes in the dome to insert it but they managed to squeeze it in.

Portage Place Clock

In early May 1903 the clock arrived from the Seth Thomas factory in the U.S.A.. The shipment consisted of seventeen boxes, about 11,000 lbs in total. A couple of items got lost in shipping and set the project back by three weeks. Within days of arrival Andrews' men were rushing to fit it into the tower.

'The city hall clock is now doing business. Jeweler Andrew and his staff having completed the work of installation. Tho clock is now on a test run, which will continue until probably Monday morning. It will then be stopped and officially started by Mayor Arbuthnot at the noon hour of the holiday.'
Winnipeg Free Press, May 23, 1903

The opening ceremony took place as originally planned at noon on May 25th, Victoria Day, 1903. The pendulum was tied to one side with a ribbon and Mayor Arbuthnot, using a 14 karat gold pocket knife supplied by Andrew and Co., cut the ribbon to let the pendulum swing. The timing was a little off as the mayor got just one word into his speech, ("Gentlemen..."), when the noon hour began to chime. He had to wait a minute before he could resume and when he did, he declared the clock's time the official time of the city. (the clock also told Greenwich mean time)

A true landmark (source)
The clock was a grand, new landmark and worked relatively well. During extreme cold spells, though, the clock bogged down and fell behind which garnered immediate complaints from those who relied on it to keep time and make appointments. Perhaps if people realized that someone had to physically wind the clock every week, which took 15 to 20 minutes to do, they may have been a bit more sympathetic !

Pre-demolition April 1961 (source)
In 1961 the end came for the 'Gingerbread House'. A council committee decided that the clock should be salvaged and a use found for it at a later date. The clock faces, hands, and mechanism were removed and placed into storage.

A church north of the city offered to buy the clock and there was talk of somehow incorporating it into the new city hall both at the time of construction and again in 1970, but nothing came of these plans.

Portage Place Clock

It was not until the mid 1980s that the idea came to use the mechanics of the clock. Portage Place's Edmonton Court would boast a 100 foot tall glass atrium and needed a centrepeice.

The faces and hands are replicas of the originals. The bells are from the city hall clock package that was in storage, but not part of the 1903 original. The chimes are now electronic and a unique features is that a keyboard can be hooked into the system allowing for custom tunes to be played (Hmmm... a little Burton Cummings with bell accompaniment, anyone ?!).

Portage Place Clock

Initially the clock stood tall and worked well, despite its age. At some point a contractor trying to protect the clock wrapped the workings and pendulum in plastic but did so without stopping the timing. The resulting damage took the clock out of commission for a number of years.

In 2007 new owners took over the mall. They, and new operations manager Ernie Romaniuk, made restoring the clock a priority.

They did get it working again last year but a member of the public grabbed the pendulum which threw the timing and mechanics out again. Currently, it is in the finals stages of test runs and will hopefully be ready to chime out Christmas carols in late 2010.

* Note: photographs taken with permission of mall management

 March 7, 1936, Winnipeg Free Press - Billy Muirhead tends to the clock

More clock photos
Portage Place Mall Home Page
Portage Place Winnipeg Building Index
Portage Place Mall Opens CBC News (video)
City Hall (No. 2) Winnipeg Building Index


  1. Wow I did not knew any of these special features this clock have! I remember to have seen it back when I lived in one of those Winnipeg apartments near the Central Park.

  2. I may be one of the few people alive who climbed to the top of the old city hall, all the way into the cupola above the clock. It was a terrifying experience (I was about ten years old) so the building doesn't hold the same nostalgia for me as it seems to for everyone else in Winnipeg. Oddly, although we had to climb past it, I don't remember the clock mechanism. All I can say is thank God the chimes didn't go off while we were up there.

    My father led my mother and me on the tour (he was a maintenance man for the city). Everything was fine for the first couple of floors which were finished and in use, but the upper floors were never completed. Most of the exterior windows faced out from tiny, oddly shaped and uninhabitable rooms, often with ceilings that slanted sharply from seven or eight feet down to one or two. The central part of each upper floor was not only unfinished, it was either not properly lit or not lit at all. My father had to lead the way with a flashlight.

    One of the tiny perimeter rooms overlooking Main Street was used as a vantage point by generations of photographers. They could shoot out the windows but they had to crouch under the low ceiling to do it. The floor near the window had a drift inches deep of antique flash bulbs.

    Just above the inhabited floors was an enormous attic area. The only lit portion was a narrow passage through the centre bordered by tall fences made out of two-by-fours and chicken wire. Beyond the chicken wire were dim mountains of unidentifiable stuff. Dad said the attic contained all the unwanted official gifts that had been bestowed on the city over the decades. The only form I could make out in the darkness was a bison head perched on top of one of the mountains.

    At one point we ascended, in darkness except for the flashlight, at leat two flights of a grand staircase that had no bannister between us and the central void. Eventually we emerged into the cupola and daylight, but this held more terrors. It was a windy day and the tattered flag whipped the flagpole which came down through the centre of the cupola. The flagpole rocked back and forth, shaking the rickety cupola and rattling its windows. It was scary enough that I was more than willing to start the return journey back down through the darkness.

    Yes, there really was a dead goat in one of the empty rooms, reputedly a student prank from the 1920s. Nobody dared retrieve the corpse because the floor had become detached from its moorings and had a distinct slant. To keep it from collapsing altogether someone had jammed a pole against it from the room below. The pole was just a five- or six-inch diameter tree trunk with the bark stripped off.

    Mayor Steve Juba took a much publicised tour of the building with reporters when he was campaigning for a new city hall, but I don't think his tour was nearly as exciting as mine. These memories don't give me sweaty palms anymore but they are still vivid.