Chapel clock is a national treasure
Since 1882 the clock tower of King Chapel has provided the first glimpse of Cornell College for visitors to Mount Vernon. In the early days those visitors arrived by horse and wagon from Iowa City, steam-engine train from Chicago, or interurban streetcar from Cedar Rapids. For the past hundred years they’ve come in automobiles from just about everywhere. The methods of conveyance have changed, but King Chapel and its clock tower continue to dominate the approaches to the town. To many Cornellians, it says, “welcome home.”
Rising 130 feet above the ridge upon which the campus is located, the tower can be seen for miles around. In turn, it offers sweeping vistas of the surrounding farmland.
The clock inside the tower is a national treasure. Designed by A.S. Hotchkiss of the Seth Thomas Company, it was state of the art for its time. It is the only remaining Model 17 tower clock made by the company, which was the preeminent clock manufacturer in the United States for 150 years.
When it was purchased by the college for $1,050, it had every upgrade imaginable. One was the gravity escapement mechanism, which Seth Thomas used in only 10 percent of its tower clocks. The gravity pull is provided by a 400-pound weight mounted on a suspension spring. In addition, the clock has a temperature-compensated mechanism, a pricey option that ensures accurate timekeeping in extreme or rapidly changing temperatures such as those Iowa experiences. The clock has never been electrified, and is still wound by hand once a week.
The clock originally had four bells to chime the hours, weighing 2,000, 500, 275, and 110 pounds, respectively. They were replaced in 1950 by a carillon, and the 500-pound bell was installed in a cupola in College Hall in 1977. The tower was struck by lightning and the bell destroyed in 2012.
Time and the Iowa climate have been hard on the clock, which has run almost continually since it was installed. The four wooden faces, each of which are five feet in diameter, are severely worn. Many of the bronze numerals, which were originally covered with gold leaf, are missing.
As steward of King Chapel and its clock, the college has received grant money to restore the clock and the tower in which it’s housed from the Stockman Family Foundation of New York and the State Historical Society of Iowa.