A famous scene from “Back To The Future,” has a woman asking for donations to save the Hill Valley Clock Tower.
Wichita has its own clock tower, one that was also struck by lightning. But the building at 204 S. Main that houses the Wichita – Sedgwick County Historical Museum was struck 40 years ago, and no one wanted to tear it down. It was restored and even after taking a licking.. it keeps on ticking.
I have always loved this building. The clock tower is a personal favorite of mine. As a seven year old kid, I remember spending the day downtown with a close family friend. We rode the bus to Douglas and Main. I had never been on a city bus, so that was a treat. We ate lunch down there, but I can’t remember where, I do recall stopping in at Rector’s Bookstore. And I got to buy two comic books (which was a rare treat) as the day heated up we toured the newly opened Wichita museum. I was so excited to go into the building, and I could not wait to see the inside of the clock tower. I was disappointed to find it was not open to visitors.
Then lightning struck the tower. June 22, 1981. Was that the end? No way! The clock tower survived and after a restoration job, the clock was running again. Every now and then the museum offers tours to go climb the stairs to the clock. It never worked out with my schedule.
So now 40 years after that disappointed kid left the museum. I am now taking a tour. Thanks to the director, Eric Cale, my tour is about to begin. But first a little history on the building….
It was known as the “Palace of the Plains,” when it was completed in 1892.
Architects Willis Proudfoot and George Bird envisioned it to be a symbol of the city’s prosperity. Unfortunately, a recession during construction left the now famous clock tower vacant.
The clock tower along with a 1,000-pound bell was completed in 1917.
The carillon was installed in the 1950s.
In the 1960’s it was time for a newer, bigger City Hall. Public support saved the building from demolition and in 1971 it was put on the National Register of Historic Places and designated a local historic landmark in 1975. In August 1976, a 1.3 million dollar renovation began.
The new museum opened on May 3, 1981.
Just three months later… On June 22nd, lightning struck the tower.
The clock tower has been keeping Wichita on time for years, and now it’s time to take a look inside.
According to the book, “Wichita Centennial” the faces are 8 feet across, and when the chimes strike 6:00, the hands are about five feet long.
Wichita natives Wayland and Zach acted as my Sherpas. There is a somewhat secret door that leads to a metal staircase that leads into a small room. The tower’s original carillon organ is there, just around the corner from the new one. Interestingly, there are no actual bells in the tower. The carillon’s sound is produced by an organ and speakers. Well… that’s not entirely true, there is one bell at the top, but it is not used anymore as it is a safety hazard.
Next we walked into the base of the tower. A small gray colored room with wooden stairs that begin their ascent into the darkness above.
The actual mechanism that runs the clock is here. The beast fell through the floor during the fire, and no one wanted to carry it back to its original perch.
From the bottom you can see the charred scars from the tower’s lightning strike. This was the part that was a little disappointing. No one is allowed to go all the way to the top for safety issues. Zach and Wayland explained, you climb all the stairs then pop through a hatch door to get behind the clock faces. The area is unsafe, and visitors are not allowed. The guys did allow me to climb to the windows to see the view, which looked into the building across the street. The wooden stair rails are made for short people, the steps are steep and narrow. The guys warned me, it was harder to go down than to go up. The pictures don’t do it justice. As Jeremy says, it looks like an M.C. Escher litho.
Thanks to Eric, Wayland and Zach for their help on this story. If you have a chance check out the guitar exhibit that Wayland and Zach helped put together… it rocks!
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