THE HISTORY OF OMAH’S CLOCKTOWER
By Mary Ann Grant – OMAH History Committee
What’s going on??
If you have been by OMAH recently you will have noticed the scaffolding installed on the building and the work underway. The Sir Sam Steele Memorial Building, specifically the clock tower, is getting some much-needed tender loving care.
Mark Buma, Supervisor, Sustainable Operations, City of Orillia, and Project Lead of the OMAH Clock Tower Restoration Project provided some insight into what is being done to this historic icon:
What Is Being Done?
Mark: “The City has been restoring the Sir Sam Steele Memorial Building’s façade in a phased approach.
In 2007, Roderick H. Young Architect (RYA) was procured to provide a Heritage Assessment and make recommendations with regard to the maintenance of the heritage components of the building. All identified items have been remedied over the past decade with the exception of deficiencies concerning brick and limestone pointing on the clock tower.
Jessica MacDonald Architect was retained by the City in 2022 to ensure restoration efforts are in line with the building’s heritage designation and best practices for restoration. The project is anticipated to be complete by mid-September.”
What is the Restoration Process?
Mark: “The purpose of this project is to re-point the existing brick and limestone façade, localized to the clock tower. Loose and cracked mortar and bricks are carefully removed and replaced with new mortar and brick which has been sourced to match existing. The 12 wooden louvers that stand just below the clock faces have deteriorated beyond restoration and are being custom-replaced to match the existing.”
Are There Special Considerations Because of the Age etc. of The OMAH Clock Tower?
Mark: “Due to the building’s age and heritage designation, special consideration was given to the construction of the engineered scaffolding which was designed to ensure that nothing is affixed to the structure. Samples of the brick, mortar, and limestone were carefully analyzed to ensure accurate sourcing and color match.”
Vintage Photo of the Post Office (Now OMAH) Circa 1910 without the Clock Tower- Orillia Past and Present Postcard Memories
The Building of the 107-Year-Old Clock Tower
It’s an opportune time to tell the story of the 107-year-old iconic structure, a local landmark that has become a beacon for OMAH’s historic location.
What is now called the Sir Sam Steele Memorial Building (named in 1970) was built in 1894 as the local federal post office and customs house. The clock tower was not part of architect Thomas Fuller’s original building plan.
In 1914 the Post Office building underwent an extensive expansion. At that time, installation of the 21-metre clock tower began. Although construction of the Clock Tower was completed, the clock faces did not arrive until 1916.
The clockworks were made by J.B. Joyce in Shropshire England. This company was established in 1690 and is one of the oldest clock-making companies in the world. In 1834, the firm began making large clocks for local churches and buildings at home and overseas.
Joyce Turret Clock Manufacturers in Staffordshire, England maker of our clock
The clock originally chimed throughout the night, upsetting many who lived downtown, awakened at all hours by the sounds of the brass bells inside. As a result of the complaints the clock was eventually shut off.
Near Demise of the Clock and the Clock Tower
Once shut off, the clock fell into disrepair. The roof of the clock tower was removed in the 1950s, resulting in debris and guano (bat feces) filling the tower over time.
The Clock Tower and Clock are Saved
Someone saw the light and in the year 2000 it was decided to repair the tower. Workers in hazmat suits had to clean out the tower. They removed over 50 bags of guano! Thankfully, since the clockworks are made of brass, they were not affected by the years of exposure to the elements, and were returned to their working condition. The roof was also replaced.
The Clock Tower Today
The Clock Mechanism
Today, our clockworks are lovingly maintained by Brian Flemming, of Flemming Clock Repair, a family business repairing clocks since 1935. Many mechanical clocks have been changed to use an electric motor. Not the OMAH clock! Our original mechanical clock is still cranked by hand by OMAH staff twice a week.
OMAH History Programming Coordinator, Lindsay Earle, explains the how the mechanical clock operates and the process of cranking the clock:
‘The clock is powered by two large weights that fall the height of the building. As they fall, they pull on the mechanism which turns the gears. Twice a week we have to crank the two tumblers around which the ropes for the weights are held so that the clock doesn’t stop when the weights reach the bottom of the tower.’
The clock is not being wound right now because of the construction. It has been carefully wrapped for protection.
The clock still chimes, but only during daytime hours, much to the relief of the downtown residents!
Our historic clock tower has been a beacon for Orillia’s Downtown core for a over century. When asked about his thoughts about the OMAH clock tower Mayor Steve Clarke commented:
“The Sir Sam Steele Building is a treasured asset and one of 28 designated heritage properties in Orillia. These buildings are preserved for their cultural and heritage value and help us share our City’s past with future generations. Restoring the clock tower is of particular significance to our community; in May of 2015, we celebrated its centennial anniversary. Whether you are from Orillia or visiting the Sunshine City, the clock tower is an iconic beacon that points you to our charming historic downtown and stunning waterfront. Suffice it to say, you know you are in the heart of Orillia when you’re near the clock tower and can hear its bells chime.”
There is a lot of “OLD” to celebrate in historic Orillia, the surrounding townships and the Chippewa of Rama First Nations. The iconic OMAH clock tower is one of them.
With thanks to:
- Mark Buma – City of Orillia; Supervisor, Sustainable Operations; Project Lead
- Lindsay Earle – OMAH History Programming Coordinator
- Monica Szegvary– OMAH Operations Coordinator
- Orillia Past and Present – Marcel Rousseau
- Mayor Steve Clarke