Father Time by starynyte
Rowland Fontz tells a story about his childhood in South Baltimore, six-plus decades ago. Saying his nightly prayers, he’d look out his tiny bedroom window at the Bromo Seltzer Tower, in those days topped by a 51-foot-high blue bottle ablaze with 596 light bulbs. Young Rowland was convinced that the skyline spectacle was a conduit for his prayers. “I thought,” he says, “it was something like the stars in heaven.”
Of course, Fontz says with a practiced wry smile, he didn’t know then that he’d end up the keeper of that Baltimore landmark’s clock, maintaining the tower’s timepiece—and the one in City Hall’s dome too. “They call me the Clock Man,” he concludes.
I met the 76-year-old several months ago, working on a piece about Federal Hill’s old McHenry Theater (Charmed Life, March 13). Interviewing Fontz, who was an usher at the erstwhile movie house, I learned about his current job. Devoted as Charmed Life is to telling Baltimore’s untold stories, there’s a kind of unwritten code that obvious civic icons like the Bromo Seltzer Tower are off-limits (this column’s logo notwithstanding). But Fontz’s story was hard to resist.
After weeks of badgering, Fontz agreed to meet me at the tower. He arrives in a blue suit, blue tie, and black loafers, his white hair carefully combed back like spun sugar. A self-described “horologist—one who studies clocks,” he’s worked on the Bromo Seltzer and City Hall clocks for 30 years on a city contract—which he initially obtained, he says, because he was the only bidder.
Before that, he built pipe organs, apprenticing at a large factory in Vermont. He hoped that “through osmosis” he’d become a musician, his true desire, “but I didn’t have the talent to play well,” he says. “But I had mechanical talent, so I went in a different direction.” After completing the apprenticeship, he returned home to run his own organ shop, whose handiwork can be seen and heard in several local churches, including St. James Frances in Riviera Beach, St. Paul Lutheran in Glen Burnie, St. Paul Lutheran in Aberdeen, and Douglas Memorial in Baltimore.
Despite their size and age (the Bromo Seltzer clock is 91 years old, City Hall’s 133), Fontz says maintaining the city’s two grand timepieces is relatively easy compared to outfitting a church with a new organ. “It’s not really complicated,” he says. “It’s just really challenging because of the precision. Other than that, it’s a very simple mechanism.”
Guest in tow, Fontz ascends in the Bromo building’s hand-operated elevator, then opens a padlocked door and climbs a steep steel staircase that rises in blackness until it reaches the frosted light seeping from the clock chamber. To a first-time visitor, entering the vault, surrounded on all four sides by 24-foot-high clock faces, is enchanting, like stumbling into something out of Lewis Carroll. But spying the avocado-sized electric motor powering the Bromo’s innards is kind of a letdown.
Fontz explains that when he first got here the clock ran on gravity, winding itself via a weight-and-pulley system that now stands idle and frozen. Five years after he took the job, thieves broke into the clock tower and stole the works’ brass and copper fittings. Fontz rebuilt the parts, but the city opted for the hassle-free electric motor.
Still, there’s work that needs doing. Keeping the tower’s signature feature running like clockwork means keeping a careful eye on the weather, for one thing; ice, snow, and moisture can slow down the clock hands’ upswing, When that happens, Fontz has to climb a ladder to adjust a counterweight on the drive shafts. Since the Orioles moved to Camden Yards, TV cameras have zeroed in on the clock, putting pressure on Fontz to be punctual. “For any reason it’s wrong, we got to get right on it, because within the hour the city will get 20 complaints about it,” he says.
But being the Clock Man has its perks, chief among them the exclusive vantage points. At City Hall, the clock is housed in small bell chamber at the top of the dome that, according to Fontz, not even the mayor has been in. At the Bromo Seltzer Tower, it’s the view. Downtown may have taller buildings, but there’s nothing like taking in the expanse of the city from the tower’s open-air crown, peeking out between the turrets—the ultimate skybox.
From this lofty perch, Fontz envisions one more addition to Baltimore’s skyline landmarks—one that fuses his technical mastery with his long-ago dream of making music and would reacquaint Baltimore with its “singular, unique honor . . . of being the birthplace of the national anthem.”
Much as he may care for his clocks, Fontz only gets really passionate as he talks about his design for the “National Anthem Memorial Tower,” a 25-story rocket-shaped tower looming beside the Inner Harbor from which “The Star-Spangled Banner” would emanate daily. Calling upon all his organ-making expertise, Fontz would outfit the tower with enough bells, chimes, harps, glockenspiels, and other tone-making devices to play the anthem at least 31 different ways, so that no version would sound more than once a month.
“It would be equal to the Eiffel Tower,” he says. “Not to that scale, but it would be an identifiable city landmark on a national and international basis.”
Going through yellowing clippings and a photo of a scale model, Fontz sketches a vision of Independence Day at the waterfront, the fireworks complemented by the great ringing of the tower. “Silence would fall over the harbor,” he says in a dramatic hush, raising his hands like he’s conducting the Baltimore Symphony Orchestra. “Then they would play ‘The Star-Spangled Banner.’” He describes strobe lights flashing from the tower as a historically correct 13-star U.S. flag rises out of the top.
Fontz formed a nonprofit, What So Proudly We Hail Inc., to pursue the monument, and spent years lobbying the city for help, but to no avail. He acknowledges in an almost embarrassed tone that he hasn’t bothered to press his case to City Hall’s current occupant. “I lost the fire,” he says.
But as he stands over the city describing the July 4 of his dreams, there’s no doubt that Fontz can see his tower standing there in the haze of spent fireworks, as clearly as he once gazed at the Bromo Seltzer Tower during his evening prayers. “I still have a dream,” he says, “and dreams can be like magic sometimes.”
By Charles Cohen
Starynyte’s Story of the Timekeeper
While visiting the tower for photos to advertise the new studio spaces, I got to meet Mr. Fontz. He was there being photographed by a professional photographer, and they allowed me to take a photo of him as well. He joked with my boss and I about it being very dark up the stairs to the cupola, and if we weren’t back in 5 minutes he would know why. LOL Once I stepped out the door into the cupola I was entranced by it’s magnificence. It’s quite a romantic place with the view of the city, cool breeze blowing, and a private get away from the bustling city below. I imagine Mr. Fontz has had his fantasies of taking a sweetheart up there for some romancing of his own. No romance for me while up there, I was a photo taking fool! Climbing the several flights of stairs up, sweating bullets and dirty hands from the rusted handrails was well worth the view from the top.over 6 years ago