JF sends me a ceramic framed clock from his grandfather’s house. What's the history of this flouncy, candy-box colored mantle clock?
Henry J. Davies of Brooklyn, a clockmaker and designer, joined an established clock-making firm in the 1870’s. Connecticut-based Ansonia originally began as a brass metal machine-tooling supplier. Davies invented a ceramic ornate shell covering the workings of a brass mechanical clock. This style took off. Most mantles in the 1880’s sported such a clock with pride.
Davies invited the famous Thomas Edison to Ansonia in 1886. Davies and Edison collaborated on a clock invention combined with a photograph. Although this invention never got off the ground, we know the market demanded elaborate ways to tell time. Sales thrived. Ansonia moved to a larger location in Brooklyn in 1879.
Typical of the safety of late 19th century factories, Ansonia’s New York factory burnt to the ground, at a loss of men and venue in 1880. Undaunted, Davies, now the company’s director, rebuilt on the same site in one year. This factory succeeded so well that by 1883 the company opened sales rooms in Chicago and London.
These overly elaborate clocks were the center of the home, in the center of the mantelpiece, in the heart of many late 19th century U.S. homes. High maintenance, they needed to be wound daily, their noisy ticking audible through the home. These clocks became a treasured gift, the cost equaling an average weekly paycheck. Everyone wanted a novelty Ansonia clock.
The market today does not favor these former beauties. The late Victorian taste for ornate Rococo ornaments in pastel colors is not in vogue. Yet Ansonia in 1886 had 225 different models, all sugary-looking, painted on ceramic shells in confectioner’s colors.
So successful was the Ansonia Clock Company that the grandson of one of the founders, William Earle Dodge Stokes, was eyeing a block in New York on which to build New York’s first air-conditioned hotel, the Ansonia, at 2107 Broadway. Stokes inherited money from his grandfather’s clocks, as well as granddad’s copper mine investments from the 1850’s.
Stokes envisioned the Ansonia Hotel in the elaborate style of Ansonia clocks. The hotel was earmarked for 17-stories in limestone with Beaux Arts style turrets and columns, lavish and Parisian in flavor. Stokes himself was as notorious as his hotel. Two mistresses quarreled with him, both shot him in the legs. He solved this relationship problem by marrying a teenage girl.
The architect for the Ansonia was the French architect Paul E. Duboy, hired in 1897; Stokes and Duboy opened the hotel, which cost $3 million, in 1904. At 550,000 sq. ft., it held 1,400 rooms, 300 suites, ballrooms, a Louis XIV dining room, as well as the world’s largest swimming pool.
JF will be amused that his grandfather’s clock, overblown and unfashionable as it is today, was the standard for decorative art of the late 19th century. If JF has a long look at this grandfather’s clock, he can see the Belle Epoch, or Beaux Arts era, in miniature. Swirling lines, sugary colors, rococo (French 18th century) styling that was also the grand high-class architecture of the day. The Ansonia featured a curated art collection, only outdone by the Grand Fountain that featured nine large seals. Stokes own pet was Nanki-Poo, his personal pig. Hotel’s guests had breakfast procured by the hotel’s rooftop 500 live chickens. Stokes’ wife filed for divorce after he moved 47 chickens into their apartment.
Today, the hotel built by clocks is a high-priced luxury condominium complex, after a turbulent history. The 1919 World Series was “fixed” there. Babe Ruth wandered the halls in his bathrobe, running into his neighbors Enrico Caruso, Toscanini, Stravinsky and Rachmaninoff.
In the 1970’s, the hotel was operated as a “bathhouse” and discotheque; the cabaret there saw young Bette Midler (Bathhouse Betty) and her pianist, Barry Manilow, perform. The hotel was falling into disrepair and subsequently disrepute. Signs of its former glory disappeared, including the dome that recalled an Ansonia clock, until the hotel was declared an historic protected property.
JF will never look at his grandfather’s clock in quite the same light since it served for the inspiration behind the art of an era in which the very privileged, at the clock’s namesake hotel, dined in French splendor while the hotel’s maids refreshed towels, linens, soaps, and stationery three times a day. The value of his clock? $200.
Certified appraiser for estates, inheritances and trusts.
Dr. Elizabeth Stewart's column appears every week in the Salon & Style section of the Santa Barbara News Press. Email her your questions and high-resolution photos at ElizabethAppraisals @ gmail.com
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