Thousands of motorists entering downtown from points west via Rusk Street or exiting the central business district on Capitol Street drive past an urban traffic island with nary a clue of its place in Houston’s heritage.
The little wedge of greenery located at the convergence of Rusk and Capitol at Bagby Street is known as the Sweeney Clock Triangle. Alas, in our haste of coming and going, many of us don’t give the Sweeney Clock the time of day. That’s unfortunate because there was a time when Houstonians set their watches by the ever-accurate Sweeney Clock.
Purchased from Boston clockmaker E.A. Howard, the clock was shipped to Texas and stood in front of the J.J. Sweeney & Co. jewelry store at the northeast corner of Main and Prairie from 1908 to 1928. Doubling as a hitching post for horse-drawn carriages, it was the authoritative timekeeper in downtown Houston for many years.
When J.J. Sweeney relocated his store two blocks south to Capitol and Main, moving his clock proved problematic. City officials deemed the clock to be a traffic hazard, obscuring the view of the growing number of motorists. Thus, Sweeney donated his beloved clock to the City in 1929 and it was moved to the downtown Farmer’s Market, where it remained for 10 years. When it began to keep erratic time at the marketplace, it was relocated to the courtyard of the City’s street maintenance building near Jefferson Davis Hospital.
With the passage of time, the clock deteriorated and in 1961 it was slated to be sold in an auction of miscellaneous surplus property. Only the last-minute efforts of Council Member Lee McLemore saved the grand old clock. “This clock is a symbol of the olden days of Houston history and should properly be placed in a park,” McLemore said.
Moved to its present location in 1968, the clock was ripe for restoration. City Council granted permission to restore the clock to the Houston chapter of the Colonial Dames of America, who repaired it for $2,000. A base for the 15-foot timepiece was made using paving bricks for historic Navigation Street. More than 11,000 bricks were laid by prison workers on the traffic island. A historical plaque is in place at the site.
Today, the Sweeney Clock is maintained and preserved by the Convention & Entertainment Facilities Department. In January 2002, the clock was removed from its site and refurbished by the Houston restoration company Metal Arts . The clock was cleaned and serviced by a qualified horologist. The wooden case of the clock was severely affected by rot due to moisture entering the case. Components were restored where possible and Honduran mahogany was utilized to replace defective components because it is virtually grain-free with excellent durability in out-of-doors applications. Restoration cost was $29,200.00.
“While it’s true that Houston hasn’t always treasured its history, that is not the case with the Sweeney Clock,” said Dawn Ullrich, director of the Convention & Entertainment Facilities Department. “We’re proud of the clock and think we’ve been good stewards of this part of Houston’s past.”
In 1998, the three Sweeney’s Jewelers stores after 123 years, absorbed by a larger chain operation. Yet, today, John Jasper Sweeney’s clock ticks on.