Saint Petersburg


The Rebirth of Old Clocks


Around 100 years ago no city in Russia had as many tower clocks as St. Petersburg.

The clocks were installed on cathedrals, churches, palaces, residential buildings, railway stations and on the City Duma building. In the 19th century, according to the experts, there were about fifty of them. With the passing of time, however, the companies that made these clocks closed down, and there was no co-ordinated system for servicing and restoring them. For many people it was easier to replace an old mechanism with a modern one than to restore it. It was only in the late 20th century that craftsmen appeared who were prepared to tackle the problem. The past ten years has seen the restoration of the mechanical clocks on the Winter and Marble Palaces, the Admiralty, Peter and Paul Fortress and the Duma.

The first tower clock operated by heavy weights appeared in St. Petersburg in 1704. It was brought from Moscow, along with bells, and installed on the wooden bell-tower of the Peter and Paul Church. It did not work for long, however: in 1720 a new chiming clock ordered from Holland was installed on the bell-tower of the new stone cathedral. It is on record that it was a great and splendid clock, just like in Amsterdam. But it too has not survived — it perished in a fierce thunderstorm in 1756. In 1760 another clock mechanism arrived from Holland, made by Bernard Oort Krass. The clock was installed and set in motion in the autumn of 1776. It can still be seen on the bell-tower of Peter and Paul Cathedral today.


The fairly bulky mechanism is housed in special accommodation without windows, which is distinctly reminiscent of a musical box (remember the city in a snuffbox from the children’s fairytale?). A drum is installed there, which plays the “recorded” tunes with the aid of attractive pins. The drum revolves, the pins cling to the strings, the strings jerk the little hammers, the hammers strike the bells...

In the course of its long life this clock has undergone numerous restorations and its musical repertoire has been changed several times. In the Soviet period it operated with an electric drive. Now, if desired, it can be started by hand. And, just as in the good old days, it plays “God Save the Tsar”, “Lord, Have Mercy” and “Our Lord is Glorious Today...”.


However, the history of the Peter and Paul Cathedral clock has never been a secret to specialists, but when it was proposed to restore the clock on the Winter Palace, it became clear that very little was known about it. First of all, clock masters under Yury Platonov (the man to whom the majority of St. Petersburg’s tower clocks owe their existence) delved into the archives. They found that the Winter Palace clock had been installed only in 1796. It was brought from the Chesma Palace and set in motion by Ivan Kulibin, who looked after it for several years.

In 1837 that first clock mechanism was destroyed in a fire: “The fire had already been raging for a long time... Suddenly, above the muffled sound of the interior destruction there arose from the dying building a clear voice that was familiar to everyone: the old palace clock, not yet touched by the fire, was slowly and mournfully striking midnight. At virtually the last strike of the bell the flames suddenly covered it with a decorative net, and a minute later the clock collapsed into the huge fire”.


The next clock for the Winter Palace was made by the master Gelfer. He not only completed it in an extraordinarily short time , but also introduced some clever alterations to the traditional construction, making it more compact. The dark clock-face with gilt numbers still looks out on to Palace Square today. The mechanism is installed two metres away, with a bell-tower next to it on the roof.


In 1995 the masters in the Hermitage’s scientific restoration laboratory managed to get the old mechanism working again. Now it is again started by hand — not every day, but once every three days. And the chimes ring out over Palace Square every fifteen minutes, though they can be hard to discern over the noise of the city.

The construction of the Marble Palace’s Clock Tower and the installation of the clock mechanism took not eight months but ten years. Masters Avraam Sandos and Iosif Basselier completed the work in 1781. Shortly afterwards the following note appeared in the palace inventory: “Above...the cupola in the belvedere room has been installed a large clock with three copper bells, from which dials with gilt figures have been placed, one facing the courtyard, the other inside the dome of the main staircase. The clock is covered by a glass case in an oak transom; in this chamber there is a small tiled stove with stove and chimney doors, and a damper with a cover”.


The black disc with gilt Roman numerals and pointed hands still adorns the Marble Palace’s tower today. Above it circle resilient waves of scrolls meeting in the middle, while an elegant garland clings to its underside. On either side of it two female figures of white marble are frozen in time.

The interior of the tower has been altered. Instead of the stove, visitors are now shown a fragment of stone floor — the place where it once stood. The clock mechanism is open to view (it is no longer encased in glass) and is mysterious to everyone except professional clock-makers. The only parts that are easily recognised are the pendulum and the weights. All the other details are difficult to identify — even the clock face, which is too similar to an ordinary round window.

The fate of this clock was even more lamentable than those of its famous neighbours. Between 1781 and 1917 the mechanism underwent regular “adjustment and cleaning”, and continued year after year to meticulously chime every quarter hour. After 1917, however, the clock tower fell into neglect. The bells were melted down, the mechanism rusted and the gilt figures fell off. In 1937 the Marble Palace became the Lenin Museum, and the old clock face was replaced by a new one with an electric cable. There was no intention to restore the previous mechanism until the early 1990s, when the palace became part of the Russian Museum. It was then that a warped clock frame with the remains of gilding and an old dial was found. Most of the parts, however, had to be made afresh.


The clock is now operating again, and is once more chiming every quarter hour. A viewing platform has been constructed next to the belltower on the roof, giving an unusual view of the city: the steely ribbon of the river, roofs, clouds and... clocks (mechanical tower clocks). Those on the St. Petersburg Duma building, the Admiralty and Peter and Paul Cathedral cannot, of course, be inspected in detail, but you can be sure that they are working.

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Where St.Petersburg

September 2018

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