For the first time in 117 years, when the phone rings at the Chelsea Clock factory, the person on the other end of the line won’t be on Everett Avenue.
Starting on Monday, the company will be mostly moved out of its 117-year-old headquarters and into a newly renovated older industrial building on 2nd Street.
Gone will be the quaint old brick industrial headquarters where celebrities, dignitaries and even presidents visited to get their precision, luxury timepieces.
This past week, production wrapped up in the old headquarters, as the last clocks to be assembled and shipped from the storied building were completed. Simultaneously, much of the old, specialized clockmaking machinery was being moved via flatbed trailer by Bormann Brothers of Pepperell.
The engraving department carved out its last name on a clock Tuesday morning.
Gear cutting machines were being washed down and unscrewed from the floor.
And, almost uniformly, the legendary Chelsea Clock company was putting away 100 years of history and heading a couple blocks east for what most believe will be an exciting next 100 years. The building, however, doesn’t have such a bright future and is slated to be torn down by its owner to make way for a large-scale apartment development.
“For the most part, the last eight years have been spent re-building Chelsea Clock,” said President JK Nicholas. “This is one of the centerpieces for us to fulfill the overall objectives in rebuilding and putting Chelsea Clock in a new place for the next 100 years. We like it’s new location near the office park. This is a wonderful old building here and has a lot of spirit in it, but it is tired. It’s sad it will be torn down, but on the other hand you have to roll with the times and create and innovate. You can’t be the same old thing forever. Our newer place will be more efficient and have better working conditions overall for the people who work here. That is very important.”
Nicholas said he and the company are grateful to the City for its support and its desire to keep them in Chelsea.
“The company is really incredibly grateful for the support we’ve seen from so many different corners of Chelsea itself,” he said. “It was really our desire to stay in Chelsea and we’re really grateful we were able to do that. It wasn’t clear at one point. We looked in Everett and Somerville, not because we wanted to, but because we couldn’t find anything. Then the new place opened up and it worked. That was fortunate. It wouldn’t have been so good to have to say, ‘Here’s your Chelsea Clock made in some other city.’ It would have been a sad day for Chelsea.”
The company began as early as 1884, but became Chelsea Clock in 1897 when Charles Pearson bought it and moved the headquarters to Everett Avenue in Chelsea. It was in that building that the patent for the first Ship’s Bell mechanism was designed, and where the company came up with the idea of offering products in a catalog. Over the years, it became well known for its marine clocks (used by ships and vessels worldwide) and its luxury, precision mantel clocks. The history is voluminous, and probably worth the effort for a full-scale book if one hasn’t already been written.
However, to get a great history of the place one needs only to talk with the employees, who finished up their work in bittersweet fashion this week in the building they have called their workplace for decades.
“This building has survived everything,” said 59-year employee John McCarthy. “I started in here in 1956. This building has survived so many fires. The bar next door used to be a three-decker and it caught fire and I don’t know how this place didn’t catch. There was a big lumberyard next door that burnt completely, but this building was untouched. Of course, we survived the large fire in the 1980s somehow. Everything else around us was burnt down. The alarms were going off and the sprinklers activated and we had no water pressure, but the building stood.”
He said there is a sadness to leaving the place, but a great hope for the future.
“It is tragic and sad, but the important thing is the talent is going with us and the specialized machinery is going with us,” he said. “This new place is going to be much better because the building is better. We’ve been on three floors here. It’s hard to be efficient like that. We’ll be much more efficient. This new owner has a vision and it will take us to the next 100 years. We’re moving a few blocks after being here a long time, but we’re staying in Chelsea.”
Efficiency is a key.
Last Tuesday, a small dumbwaiter elevator bringing clock parts up from the basement to the first floor assembly room got stuck between floors. It’s a common problem, and one of the things they’ve grown accustomed to dealing with. To fix it, one has to go to the first floor and hit a button to release it. That won’t happen any longer, and neither will the cold, drafty days in the winter, nor the unbearably hot days in the summer.
Master Clock Maker Jean Yeo said she has spent 53 years assembling clocks in the old building – nowadays being a specialist in the famous Ship’s Bell clock.
“I don’t know what I’ll miss,” she said. “I guess about the only thing I’ll miss is coming over Carter Street and seeing the big Chelsea Clock sign…It’s going to be quite a transformation for me. Old is better in some respects. We had a lot of good times here. I’ve learned how to do quite a lot of things here. We’ve had dignitaries, celebrities and even kings come through this building to meet us and see what we do. I have the time ingrained in me. I can hear a clock chime and know if its two or three seconds off. I can’t deal with it if it’s more than five seconds off. When I go up Rt. 1, I always know what time it is before I see it on the placards. And I never, never ever had an alarm clock in my house. I just get up automatically. The thing is, I learned all of that here in this building.”
The feelings are mutual for Bhupat Patel – a master clock repairman who was brought to Chelsea Clock from England for his expertise in repairing Chelsea Clocks.
That was 33 years ago.
“I’ve been here since 1981 and I’m used to this building,” he said. “We know so much about this building because all these years we’ve spent walking around and getting things. We’ll have new floors and a better place to work, but you have to kind of miss a place like this.”
Sentiment aside, the down and dirty business of moving from a place that has been stationary for 117 years has not been easy, said Spokesman Patrick Capozzi.
The process started last year with a color-coding system and a plan for moving one department at a time.
“We stopped manufacturing last week,” he said. “We made sure to have enough product ready to go so when we shut down the machinery, we have enough product to ship out. It’s important in retail products to keep shipping to our clients. So, we built up inventory to keep things going.”
However, the clean out has been a little more difficult.
What to do with an industrial molding for a clock that hasn’t been manufactured for decades?
Do you save it, or toss it?
“There are gears and molds and things that we haven’t produced for years that were on a shelf in storage here in the building in case we ever decided to bring it back or something,” he said. “The question with all those things is what do we do with it?”
Anyone who has been in the building knows that there are beautiful photographs that not only tell the story of Chelsea Clock, but also the story of Chelsea and the United States. Wall after wall of photos contain presidents, authors, former Chelsea mayors, generals and royalty figures posing with their Chelsea Clocks. Those things, along with all the press clippings so diligently saved over the years, have no question marks about their future. Those, Capozzi said, will be saved in a very special archive at the new building.
“We’ve been talking about the move for quite a while, and now it’s here and almost done,” he said. “We like to say around here that we hope the moving process goes like clockwork.”