December 24, 2017

Photo Essay: The Hangover Cure Clock Tower Gets Its Tick-Tock Back

Every city has a beacon—something that acts as a kind of "North Star" to guide your way home (or to wherever it is that you're going).

In Syracuse, it was the MONY tower.

At Colgate, it was the chapel.

In New York City, it's the Chrysler Building for me—though, for others, I'm sure it's the Empire State Building or the Freedom Tower, Statue of Liberty, or Brooklyn Bridge.

In LA, the Hollywood sign and Griffith Observatory.

In Pripyat, it's the ferris wheel.

In Vegas, it's the Stratosphere.

And in Baltimore, it's the Bromo Seltzer Arts Tower.

When I first visited Baltimore for work in November 2015, the clock tower was the first local attraction or architectural site of interest that I asked my new boss about. After spending nearly two weeks in town looking up at that thing, mostly at night when LED lights illuminate it in blue and purple, I became utterly romanced by it.

When I returned to Baltimore in November 2016, I stayed in a hotel with a view directly across from the Bromo tower. I watched its facade transition from the muted tones of sunrise to the violet glow of bedtime.

And this December, I found myself at that very same hotel, peering out of the window at that very same tower, under the pallor of snow and the lumens of the morning after.

The crown had been draped under some restoration effort—but looking at it from afar, even at somewhat eye level, just wouldn't suffice. I had to get inside the tower, up the tower, and into the clock room.

Fortunately, I'd taken an extra Saturday on my business trip specifically for tourism and made a beeline over to the Bromo Arts and Entertainment Dstrict and, as its centerpiece, what was originally known as The Emerson Tower.

It was built in 1911 by Captain Isaac Emerson, a Baltimore chemist who'd invented Bromo-Seltzer for headaches and hangovers in 1880 and, seven years later, founded the Emerson Drug pharmaceutical company.

Considering the fact that Baltimore had been not only a big drinking town before Prohibition but also a big producer of booze (behind Kentucky and Pennsylvania), anything that claimed to cure hangover headaches—even just a fizzy antacid combined with the same painkiller as found in Tylenol and a little citric acid.

Of course, Bromo-Seltzer got its name from a more nefarious ingredient that was outlawed in 1975 and removed from the hangover cure: sodium bromide, a toxic sedative that poisoned a few too many of its users.

But that wasn't so unusual back then. Doctors often prescribed chemicals as healing agents (hence why pharmacists were called "chemists"). People used cocaine for wakefulness. Others took morphine to ease the pain after a boo-boo. No big deal.

As well as Bromo-Seltzer may have worked, the key to its success wasn't any kind of secret ingredient or patented formula. In fact, anybody could've made the exact same product with the exact same recipe—but it was Captain Emerson who made a pharmaceutical fortune off of it.

Where Bromo-Seltzer really excelled was in its branding—and a lot of that had to do with those cobalt blue bottles that made the brand jump right off the shelf. That blue glass was so key to the success of Bromo-Seltzer that Emerson eventually cornered the market on the manufacture of it by creating the Maryland Glass Corporation. As a result, he controlled 90 percent of the cobalt blue glass that was produced (also used in bottles of Noxema and Vick's Vapo Rub) in the U.S.

That's why the tower was once topped by a 51-foot, illuminated, revolving replica of a blue-glass bottle of Bromo Seltzer—that is, until it caused so much structural damage that it had to be removed in 1936.

With 15 floors (16, including the clock room), it was the tallest structure in Baltimore until 1923—considered, in fact, to be more of a skyscraper than just a clock tower, even though Baltimore's tallest today clocks in at 40 stories.

To get up to the top, you can ride up the circa 1911 manually controlled Otis elevator, whose track record is reportedly more reliable than its more modern counterpart.

It will take you up to the 15th floor, where you can view the swinging pendulum that drives the clock and climb a ship's ladder one flight up to the clock room.

Up there on the 16th floor, you're in the midst of the world's largest, four-faced, pendulum-driven clock (even bigger than Big Ben, though this one doesn't chime, much to the relief of the hungover consumers of Bromo-Seltzer)...

...with the sunlight streaming through the translucent white glass of the 24-foot clock dials.

It turned out to be the perfect time to visit—and well worth the weight—because it was just this year that the clock was restored to its original, gravity-driven mechanisms after having been electrified in 1975 and subsequently run by motor. (That means the clocks once again "tick" and "tock," just as they were always supposed to.)

The clock was originally designed by the Connecticut-based Seth Thomas Clock Company (also famous for its work on the clock at Grand Central Terminal). Its mechanisms, recently tuned up by Balzer Family Clock Works, bear the stamped date of June 16, 1911 and the serial number 1664.

But among the first pieces of the clocks to be restored were the hands of the clocks. The original wooden ones, which had been frozen in the 9 o'clock position for a couple of years, were taken down in 2015 and put on display in the clock room.

They were replaced by brand new ones that hopefully won't get stuck—but any hands of a clock, especially wooden ones, aren't necessarily permanent fixtures. You can expect to have to change them out every few decades (or at least once a century, which doesn't seem that bad).

To be honest, it's a major victory that any part of the Bromo-Seltzer complex remains today, after it spent so many years neglected and abandoned.

The factory may be gone (replaced by the fire station that currently occupies the ground floor), and the offices may have been converted into artist studios, but that clock on the 16th floor and that collection of blue bottles one floor down (on loan from and curated by collector Ernest Dimler) act as a living museum for the early days of Baltimore industry and innovation.

And even though the Bromo-Seltzer Arts Tower was meant to mimic the Palazzo Vecchio in Florence, Italy (with four clocks facing out instead of just one), it's hard to imagine the Baltimore skyline without it.

Related Posts:
Photo Essay: Bank of Manhattan Clock Tower, Queens, Abandoned
Photo Essay: Glimpses of Baltimore

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