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Public works: the volunteers who cleaned our clock

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One day in the summer of 1987 Curt Mangel was jogging past the clock tower along the lake at Waveland Avenue and noticed that the clock wasn't working. He thought that was a shame. "It was an embarrassment to the city that we had such a wonderful Gothic structure with this gorgeous clock right there in a lovely stretch of Lincoln Park--but the clock didn't work. "I thought to myself, 'You ought to do something about that.'"

So Mangel, who renovates old buildings for a living, eventually enlisted the help of two friends--Chuck Askins, an interior designer, and Robert Boin, a civil engineer. After a year of painstaking, backbreaking labor they have repaired the clock. They have also fixed 5 of its 25 chimes--which now ring every 15 minutes--cleaned off the graffiti that once scarred the building, weeded the patio, and cleaned inside.

On July 14 they'll give a tour of the clock tower, taking groups of people up the long winding stairs to the belfry. If all goes as planned, they'll have concerts on the chimes by Christmas. What's more, they did all of this work on their own time--giving up more than a year of Saturday afternoons--for no money or other compensation.

"It's kind of amazing when you think about it--they did all of this for free," says Friends of the Parks' Erma Tranter. "I wish we had more people like them--our parks would be immaculate."

The clock tower is part of an old field house at Waveland that was built in the early 1930s when that stretch of Lincoln Park was being designed. "It's a very elaborate structure," says Askins. "In those days each field house in every park, like Humboldt Park or Garfield Park, had its own distinct style. This was a time when the city really poured its resources into public-works projects. This particular field house is English Gothic, with a slate roof--it's made of real brick."

Over the years, however, it had fallen into disrepair. Its largest room--once used for basketball and volleyball--was converted into a locker room for the adjacent golf course. The stairs to the belfry were closed. The clock hadn't worked since 1941.

"When I first started calling the Park District to see what I could do, I got bounced around a little bit," says Mangel. "I called the commissioner's office, and they handed me over to the very nice lady who handles the nuts--that's nuts, as in kooks. I told her that the clock was broken, and that I wanted to fix it. But I guess she thought I was complaining about it, because she sent me to the guy who is in charge of the electricians. He said, 'Don't worry, we'll fix it.'

"I thought, 'Right--just like you fixed it all these years.' But I said, 'No, you don't understand. I want to fix the clock for the Park District.' Well, after he dropped the phone he said, 'Come on down--I have to meet you.'"

In December 1987, Mangel met with Park District officials Edward Uhlir and Robert Jones. "I came down with my proposal, and they showed me a building plan," says Mangel. "Well, I saw on the plans that they had a rolltop desk, and I knew it was a roll player for a Deagan chimes system. I got real excited. I said, 'Do you have chimes in there?' As you might imagine, no one knew. But the chimes were there all right, and then I was real excited about the project."

Jones said he liked Mangel's proposal and promised to take it up with his bosses. But it took about 18 months for Mangel and his cohorts to get the go-ahead. "I don't want to say anything bad about the Park District, because they may take it the wrong way--and they have been nice to let us fix their clock," says Mangel. "But you know how it can be with a bureaucracy. There was a lot of paper to fill out. The big concern was insurance. Finally, we signed a waiver, saying we wouldn't sue them if we got hurt."

In May 1989 Mangel and his friends made their first trek to the top of the tower. "It was a mess--a wretched mess," says Mangel. "There was dust everywhere. I don't think anyone had been up there in years."

"There was a leak in the radiator," Askins adds. "That caused the tower to turn into a steam room in the winter. It caused metal to corrode and rust. The wires were destroyed by moisture. The handcrafted wood on the console of the chimes had fallen apart--we found a pile of kindling on the floor. The glue had simply evaporated, and it collapsed."

But Mangel and his volunteer renovators were ready.

"We're all members of Chicago Area Theater Organ Enthusiasts, which means we're into restoring things--especially historical organs," says Askins. "I myself am what you would call a steeple chaser. I love to go around the city--by bus and train--looking at old church steeples. I've been all over the city--the west side, south side, and north side--at all hours of the morning. You wouldn't believe how many great churches there are in this city. A lot of them have beautiful steeples with amazing chimes that their parishioners don't even know about. I'd love to make those chimes work."

The first task at Waveland was to get the big clock working. "We rented a swing stage, like they use to wash windows," says Mangel. "And we hung the swing stage by a hook from the parapet of the tower. It's about six stories high, but I was never scared. It's just a matter of being careful--I don't mind hanging in the air.

"Anyway, we removed the old hands, and put on Roman-numerals to make the clock look more old-fashioned. Most of the clock face was damaged. It collected water in there. We had to do a lot of remedial repairs. We got it working last summer."

Then they started in on the chimes, which are activated by striking mechanisms that were in horrible shape. "Each mechanism is filled with dozens of screws, nuts, and bolts which had corroded and rusted over the years," says Askins. "We had to take apart each mechanism and clean up all the parts. That's tedious work. We were up in the belfry. We kept a little radio going, but mostly it was boring work."

They got the first of the chimes working last spring. "I don't think we were expecting adulation for making the chimes work, but I certainly wasn't expecting what we got," says Askins. "Some people began to complain. That was probably the most frustrating thing about the whole experience. They live across Lake Shore Drive, and I can't imagine you could hear the chimes if your windows are up. One lady said she couldn't hear the nine o'clock news because of the chimes. Another one said they kept her up all night. Well, it was never ringing all night. But as people got accustomed to them, the complaints stopped. And most people tell us they love the chimes."

To its credit, the Park District stood by the renovators even during the complaints. In time, word of the project spread. "They were doing all of this without any publicity," says Tranter. "I didn't even know what they were doing, and I use the park all the time. I remember the first time I noticed their work. It was at Christmas, and I noticed Christmas lights on the tower. I thought, 'What a nice touch for the lakefront.' I thought it was the Park District. Little did I know it was Chuck and his group."

A few weeks later, Tranter met Askins.

"Once he got started, it was like Chuck couldn't stop," says Tranter. "He started weeding the brick patio out in front of the field house--that hadn't been weeded in years. He started cleaning off the graffiti. He got a flag for the flagpole, and he put flag bunting on the sides of the field house. Now he's started in on the graffiti on the tile of the Addison Street underpass that comes under Lake Shore Drive.

"It gets a lot of gang graffiti. I was on Streets and Sanitation to clean it. They did, but the gangs came right back the next day. So I called Chuck and asked him if he would adopt it. And he came out and washed all of the graffiti off. The next day it was back, but Chuck washed it off again. I think he's wearing the gangs out, because the graffiti hasn't come back. It's amazing what one person can do. Anyone else would have said, 'Who cares? That's not my job.' But he's out there fighting. I've never seen anything like it."

Mangel and Askins vow to continue their efforts at the clock tower throughout the year. They've even brought in another organ enthusiast, John Peters, to rebuild the chime keyboard.

"This is a gorgeous stretch of land," Askins says, enjoying the panoramic view of the lakefront from the clock tower's roof. "At this one stretch of park at Waveland we have 20 tennis courts, five baseball diamonds, two play lots--one of which is getting relandscaped. Five hundred parking spaces, a bird sanctuary, a totem pole--which was installed in 1929--a nine-hole golf course, Brett's Cafe, and direct access from Lake Shore Drive.

"I know I'm forgetting something--oh yes, we have a skating rink here in the winter. Now we've fixed the tower, so we've got this too. Can't you just imagine a band out in the front playing a concert of music by John Philip Sousa? It would be wonderful.

"Of course, it's been a lot of work. It's been a lot of tedious work. Sometimes I wonder if it was really worth it. But I guess it was worth it because we're still here. Right?"

Art accompanying story in printed newspaper (not available in this archive): photos/Bruce Powell.

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