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TELLING TIME by Ellen Donker

Columbia High School's clock tower may soon get its fix.


Columbia High School Clock Tower
The HSA beautification committee is raising funds to fix the Columbia High School clock tower.

Patty O’Connell surely isn’t the only one who has noticed that the clock tower at Columbia High School doesn’t keep time. She remarks, “I think it’s said 9:10 for the past 20 years.” But she and fellow members of the HSA Beautification Committee, Leah Gomberg and Matt Glass, are the first to do something about it.


Of course, the committee has a long list of projects it would like to see completed – an almost 100-year-old building needs constant maintenance – but restoring the clock tower is its top priority, so much so that O’Connell and Gomberg are staying on the committee even though their children have all graduated (Glass has a rising senior).


Columbia High School, favored for its Gothic Revival style, is known as a standout among schools. In fact, Architectural Digest selected it as the most beautiful high school in New Jersey. Designed in 1926 by the Newark-based architectural firm of Guilbert and Betelle, Columbia High School was intended to be the jewel of the school district with its indoor swimming pool, separate full-sized gymnasiums for boys and girls, and an astronomical observatory housed within a Gothic central tower. Also built within the tower is a custom clock by the E. Howard Clock Company, featuring four massive dials facing out from each side of the tower and connected to an historic bell.


When Matters Magazine last ran a story on the clock tower in January 2017, CHS alumna (2008) Margaret Brier, a clock enthusiast, had recently toured and inspected it. Although she couldn’t find anyone to tell her when the clock had ceased operating, she pronounced it fixable, finding all the parts present and intact. Her hope was that someday soon the resources could be found to fix it before the clock met a rusty death. She said, “This is a rare tower clock in acceptable condition, and it should be restored to a place of pride for CHS graduates and members of the community.”

(L_R) Leah Gromberg, Matt Glass, and Patty O'Connell are members of the Columbia High School beautification committee. The colorful unity box behind them - a beautifully rendered map of the district's schools - is one of the committee's recent projects.

The beautification committee agrees. After conducting research to find a firm to restore the clock, the members connected with Elderhorst Bells of Palm, PA. With an impressive portfolio of historic tower clock restoration for other institutions such as universities, train stations and landmarks (South Orange’s Village Hall among them), the committee found it to be the only company on the East Coast qualified to fix the CHS clock. The cost to restore and clean it will be $16,000.


With the proposal approved, the beautification committee is starting to fundraise for the sum. O’Connell, who is also on the board of the Cougar Boosters, approached the organization about donating to the fund. Although it usually gives to sports and clubs, the members also like to support causes that benefit as many students as possible. They have committed $4,000. And Janet Crane, who heads up the CHS Alumni Association, earmarked $1,000 for the clock.

O’Connell is confident that they can raise the additional $10,000 from the community through a fundraising campaign they have just launched.


Hoping to have the clock fixed well before CHS’s centennial in 2026, O’Connell, Gomberg and Glass have joined a committee headed by Principal Frank Sanchez to plan a celebration. O’Connell sees the clock restoration as the kickoff to other projects to beautify the school, including architectural lighting similar to that at Maplewood Town Hall. And any funds raised in excess of the goal will go towards the celebrations.


Although our world is used to telling time with its phones, it will be nice to be able to look up and see our beloved high school clock keeping proper time and marking it with the occasional clang of the bell. And since the CHS bell tower is featured in the district’s new logo, it will aptly represent what Superintendent Ronald Taylor cited as “the pinnacle of [the] academic journey in our school district.”


To donate to the clock tower restoration, visit bit.ly/3OHSrgQ


Ellen Donker toured the clock tower in 2016 and anxiously awaits its restoration.

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