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Clockmaker Ray Saunders'
assistants lower tools that
will be used to remove the
clock's 1.8 metre arms.


Postcard with stamp dated 1944.


Vancouver City Hall opened December 4, 1936 and was designated a heritage building in 1976.

The building was designed by the architectural firm of Townley and Matheson, and built by the Carter-Halls-Aldinger Company. The $1 million construction cost was provided by a special bond issue.

Built during the depths of the Depression, this landmark structure visioned. by Mayor G.G. McGeer was both a make-work project, and a symbol of the newly enlarged city, the result of amalgamation with Point Grey and South Vancouver.


Clockmaker, clockmaker fix me a clock

By Naoibh O'Connor-Staff writer
Vancouver Courier

In September 1977, Ray Saunders sported an 1890s vintage suit, black top hat and tie for the unveiling of Gastown's celebrated steam clock, which he had built.

Last week, he donned the very same hat for another special occasion-the start-up of restoration work on the four neon clocks atop the east, west, north and south faces of city hall.

For Saunders, president of Landmark Clocks International and Vancouver's resident horologist, or clockmaker, dressing up in the old top hat has become a habit.

"It's pretty tattered. It needs a bit of work, but any time I'm involved in any restoration that involves height, I usually wear this good luck hat," he said shortly before taking an elevator up to the roof-top site with three assistants.

Once there, he put on a safety harness and climbed down a ladder to the clock face on the building's east side. Restoring the clocks will take about a week for each face and altogether cost between $40,000 and $50,000.

Saunders is a former skydiver, so the prospect of clinging to a ladder more than 10 storeys up off the side of a building to dismantle equipment didn't alarm him.

The motors on each of the 69-year-old clocks are worn out and beyond repair. Saunder's job is to install counterweights on the 1.8-metre hands to reduce the strain on the gear systems, which had been overheating due to the weight of the arms. The motors will also be replaced to keep more accurate time and each of the hands sandblasted and repainted to spruce up their rusted appearance. A new pilot clock inside will keep the four faces synchronized.

The neon clocks are an original feature of the Townley and Matheson-designed city hall-an art-deco structure that opened in December 1936. It was designated as a heritage building in 1976.

Taking apart the first of the four mechanisms was no easy task Friday. The delicate neon lights were removed first followed by the two hands. "Would you believe there's a spider's nest in here?" he said while unscrewing bolts.

Hanging on the side of the building tempted him to test out a few puns. "I'm working around the clock to get it done, but these hands are giving me trouble-not these hands, but these hands," he joked, pointing to the clock arms.

Rusted nails made it impossible to remove the hour hand on the east clock, which he decided to leave for a later date. "I'll have to come back and bring my mini-grinder and grind them off-they're rusted solid," he said.

Another surprise was the wiring, which will have to be fixed. Saunders said the insulation is coming off. "It's a wonder it hasn't shorted out," he said.

More than an hour after starting the job, he was ready to leave. But he still has several trips up and down the building remaining-at least four times over the next few weeks before the project is finished.

Saunders, who apprenticed as a watch and clock technician for Woodward's department store before starting his own business in 1970, has built 150 clocks around the world. He also does restoration work.

One of his upcoming jobs involves repair work on a 1990 steam clock in Otaru, Japan that he also built and modelled after the clock in Gastown. "The mayor of the town came to Vancouver. He liked it so much he wanted one for his own town," Saunders said. The main whistle no longer blows, a problem he suspects is caused by calcium deposits from hard water.

Saunders plans to travel to Asia in June to complete the Japanese job. "It'll be my longest house call in a while," he said.


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All photos copyright © Christian Dahlberg except where stated otherwise. All rights reserved.
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