Clock Man Leon Hittner
Old clocks never die, they come to Leon for fixing.
Thursday, January 30, 2003
Leon Hittner is mesmerized by antiques. In his Lighthouse Avenue shop in Pacific Grove, a bright yellow 1882 Victorian, shoppers find old jewelry, intricately carved tables, European china, and the odd object d''art or two.
There''s enough to look at that you almost don''t notice the sound at first. And then, it''s unmistakable: the heartbeat-like pulsing of 250 clocks, all set at different times. Clocks on walls, clocks on floors, clocks in halls, clocks in stairwells, clocks behind the counter, clocks waiting to be unpacked, clocks waiting to have their little clock hearts restored.
It''s a passion that took root over 30 years ago when, as a second lieutenant in the army, Hittner was invited for dinner by a colonel who had a house filled with antique clocks.
"I was walking through his house and I got a glint in my eye," Hittner recalls. "He said, ''You pick one out and I''ll repair it and you do the case.'' When he died, he left me all his books and repair manuals."
Soon afterwards, Hittner purchased his first clock, a 1905 Sessions Mantel Clock, for ten dollars, "an absolutely horrific amount at the time." He got it in working order, and passed it along to his oldest daughter as a wedding gift. The clock is easily worth 40 times that amount now.
The passion held: Hittner and his wife Joan opened an antique clock shop 25 years ago in Monterey in the old San Carlos Hotel-then moved it to Pacific Grove in 1987. The clocks in the shop, some of them dating back to 1775, are from Germany, England, France, America and the Far East. Besides their primary function as timekeepers, they create their own music. "At night it sounds like a rainstorm," Hittner says.
A cuckoo bursts out of a rare carved wooden wall clock, known as a Quail Quarter Striker, circa 1840. The cuckoo does dips to announce the hour, and then, at 15-minute intervals, a quail pops out of another door. Underneath the cuckoo, a detailed carving depicts the fable of the fox and the grapes.
"These friction clocks can be a big problem," Hittner explains. "They wear out or just stop."
Upstairs, a six-foot grandmother clock bongs, echoed by an eight-foot grandfather clock with a moon-phase panel, then by a four-foot granddaughter. "They are designated by height," Hittner explains. "Although," he adds, "there''s no grandson."
Besides the beauty of the old clocks, there are the stories attached to them, like that of the tall Act of Parliament Clock that stands proud in the front room. "There was an English Act that taxed clocks to the point where people couldn''t afford them anymore," Hittner explains. "So they put large clocks in public areas, like taverns, so people wouldn''t have to buy them."
Even the modern clocks have tales to be told. A thick advertising clock that Hittner''s particularly fond of shouts Harley Davidson in neon red lights. It''s been bought and returned to Hittner twice.
"The first time, a guy who was headed off to jail came in to sell it to leave his wife with a little money," Hittner recalls. "This was his prized possession. Then another guy bought it, and hid it from his girlfriend, but she found out. Every time they would have a fight, she''d throw it in his face. Finally it was, the clock goes, or you do."
Priced at $3,650, it''s not hard to see where a peeved girlfriend might have a point. But to Hittner, all the clocks in his shop are priceless, and hard to turn away. "One guy came in and said, ''I don''t have one clock, but I''ll sell you 115.''" Hittner took them all.
In the back of the store, Hittner''s son-in-law Sal Flores is hunched over a table carefully working on a rare Jeweler''s Regulator, signed by a master jeweler in 1907. One of the most collectible of the antique clocks and made with 40 pounds of mercury in the pendulum, the clock is extremely accurate and uses mercury to compensate for changes in temperature.
"It''s trying to break the laws of physics," Flores says. "All the gears are encased in glass to eliminate friction. You''re moving a 20-pound pendulum with a four-pound weight."
Because many of the old clocks are made of brass and steel, harder than today''s standards, most of are very repairable. "If you maintain them they will keep running," Hittner says. "We can bore out the brass and put in new bushings, and it takes it back essentially to the condition in which it was built."
Flores, a former engineer, is proving to have a knack for the work of clock restoration. "He''ll take over the business," says Hittner. "Time marches on."
The Antique Clock Shop is located at 489 Lighthouse Ave., Pacific Grove. 372-6435.