JP CENTER—Jeff Ferris opened the small door in the lobby of the First Church of Jamaica Plain Unitarian Universalist across from the Civil War Monument and squeezed up the narrow circular stairway to the balcony housing the Hook organ, built in 1854, a year after the early Gothic Revival-style church was completed.
He opened a door to the tower behind the organ, ducking to avoid low beams, and climbed a ladder to the next level with two wooden boxes attached to the ceiling that protected the chains weighted with rocks and connected to the church’s clock and huge bell. A third, steeper ladder led to the next level with a small wood-framed room in the middle. He opened the door.
“Here it is,” he said with measured pride. Inside, the rare Howard & Davis clockworks gleamed with gold gears set in a shining black iron frame.
Ferris, a JP resident who owns Ferris Wheels bike shop a few blocks away on South Street, checked the time and picked up a large crank handle from the floor.
“The bell’s going to ring in a few minutes,” he said, fitting the handle into one of two shafts connected to the clock and bell. Like days of old, the chains groaned under the weight below as they wrapped around their drums with a secure mechanical sound of antiquity.
Each chain that came down from the ceiling into the clockworks had a mark that indicated when it was fully wound. The clock shaft cranked with smooth, easy clicks, but the larger bell shaft took more effort, turning with a slower but deliberate meter.
Ferris and fellow church member George Smith share the winding duties. “I do it mid-week and George does it on Sundays. I like it because it’s fun and novel. But the best part is bringing people up here with me.”
Ferris said he’s been winding the clock since restoration contractor David Graf finished overhauling it last spring as part of a three-year capital campaign that also included providing handicapped accessibility, masonry repair and restoration of the main window damaged by wind.
The three-faced clock was electrified in the early 1900s, but in recent years it didn’t keep accurate time and had lost some hands. Some time after that the bell stopped functioning.
“It keeps pretty accurate time now—maybe loses a minute a month,” Ferris said.
According to Anne Brown, co-chair of the church’s building committee, Graf found the clock “under the coating of old dried oil, grease and dirt… to be remarkably intact, missing just four pieces, and assessed [it] to be quite rare and significant because there are so few of the early Howard & Davis clocks that remain.
“Edward Howard is a very famous name in American clock-making and is considered to have been a mechanical genius. The Boston firm of Howard and Davis was still making clocks with pre-mass production methods in 1853, [so] our clock was probably made in part by Howard himself.”
“We were lucky that most of the mechanism was still there.” said Ferris. “David only had to fabricate a few parts.”
Not everyone was happy about the restoration at first.
“The original design had the bell ringing around the clock, and some close neighbors complained,” Ferris noted. “So David devised a gizmo that turns the bells off from 8 p.m. to 8 a.m.”
Ferris said he’s been coming up the tower to put up the church’s holiday lights for 25 years. Another steep ladder led up to the bell level, where he swung the 8-foot bell-wheel a few times until the stem fell onto the bells lip, sending a penetrating wave of sound through the landing.
The bell was cast by Henry N. Hooper & Co. of Boston in 1854.
Rev. Terry Burke, minister of the church, said, “There’s an old story that our bell was made from a melted down Revere bell, but no one really knows. It’s an interesting possibility.”
Pointing up, Ferris said there were two more levels, marked with straight ladders and a few planks thrown over some beams. “The top one’s where I go to throw down a line and hoist up the lights for Christmas,” he said.
On the way downstairs Ferris pointed out that the Hook organ’s electric blower that took the place of the original hand cranked bellows recently burned out.
“I think they call it a tracker type organ, with mechanical linkage that opens and
closes the pipes,” said Ferris.
“It’s very special,” said Brown, noting that the Hook firm was a leading force in American organ building and that their instruments of this period are praised for their voicing, playing action and quality of construction.
“The organ was last modified in 1890 and we need to take care of it, so we’ve started plans to raise money to restore it,” she said. “It could cost several hundred thousand dollars.”
The First Church’s predecessor, the Congregational Society of the Third Parish of Roxbury, was originally located in a smaller white clapboard meeting house built on the site in 1769.
“There is a lot of history here,” Brown said. “And for me, the bell tower gives me a sense of place. I love hearing the bell as I do errands or come out of a service. It marks our most important occasions. When I was married in the church, my friends rang the bell. That means a lot to me.”