Time Is Money

For nearly 30 years one of the world’s most impressive timepiece collections was housed by a tiny museum in the basement of an entertainment complex on the outskirts of Rockford. The Time Museum, established in 1971 by local millionaire Seth Atwood, included a 3,000-year-old sundial used by the imperial family during the Chou dynasty, an atomic clock used to test Einstein’s theory of relativity, an 18th-century ring watch by Abraham-Louis Breguet designed to prick the wearer at a preset time, and several ornate 17th- and 18th-century French and German clocks with moving figures known in the horological trade as automata. But last spring the octogenarian Atwood sold the Clock Tower Resort and Conference Center where the museum was located and decided to liquidate his collection as well. Mike Lash, director of Chicago’s public art program and a Rockford native, resolved to acquire the collection for Chicago. Now 1,551 timepieces from Atwood’s collection are coming to town as the property of the new National Time Museum of Chicago, set to open January 1, 2001–the scientific starting date of the third millennium–in a dedicated space at the Museum of Science and Industry.

Early in the 20th century Atwood’s family founded Atwood Vacuum Machine Company, which manufactured vacuum cleaners and later branched out into auto body hardware; Seth Atwood enlarged his fortune through various banking and real estate ventures, and in 1969 he began investing in antique clocks and watches. According to John Shallcross, conservator of the Atwood collection since 1985, equally impressive timepieces can be found in other museums and in private collections as far afield as England, France, and Switzerland. But the late Justice W. Shepro, president of the American Section of the Antiquarian Horological Society, once declared, “There has never been another collection as comprehensive as [Atwood’s], nor one comprising individual pieces of such caliber and importance.”

When Atwood decided to sell his collection, the city of Rockford tried to buy it, but according to Lash it lacked the necessary funds. Lash wanted to see the timepieces stay in Illinois, and acquiring them for Chicago became a personal crusade not only for him but for Mayor Daley and Governor George Ryan. Last May, Atwood held a silent auction for the collection. “There were bids well in excess of $40 million,” says Lash. The city bid only $25 million but was declared the winner because it was the only bidder that agreed to keep the majority of the collection intact rather than sell off the individual items. The sale agreement specified that 81 pieces deemed redundancies or vanity items could be sold at auction to make up the difference between the city’s bid and the higher bids that were turned down. When the pieces were auctioned last December, at Sotheby’s in New York City, they fetched a whopping $28 million, $5 million of which went toward the city’s bid. One item, a 1932 Patek Philippe pocket watch, sold for $11 million, more than double its appraised value.

The sale agreement gives the city five years to raise the remaining $20 million, and over the past few months Daley and Lash have pulled together a blue-chip roster of corporate executives to help collect nearly $30 million for both the collection and an endowment to fund operating expenses at the new museum. Among the committee members are former governor Jim Thompson, Sara Lee CEO John Bryan, and Michael Christ, group vice president of Tiffany & Company. Several members are time-piece enthusiasts themselves: committee chair John Walter, chairman of the Milwaukee-based temporary agency Manpower Inc., has been fascinated by clocks for as long as he can remember and has more than 40 on display in his Lake Forest home. But he gives credit for the new museum to Daley, another clock enthusiast. “Everywhere the mayor goes in this city he seems to point out the need for an iron gate or a clock.” Walter says the committee intends to complete its task in less than five years. “This is a good time to be in the fund-raising business, and we’re going to be aggressive.”

For the first five years the National Time Museum will be located at the Museum of Science and Industry, just off the north court on the first floor. For several months the museum’s curators have been planning the installation, which will cover about 8,000 square feet. A number of architectural firms have submitted proposals for the space, and according to associate curator Mark Hayward, the winning firm should be chosen this week. “We’re really thinking in terms of a minimalist design,” says Hayward, “because we want the timepieces to be the center of attention.” In Rockford the displays were in roughly chronological order, yet Hayward says the organization of the new museum will probably be more conceptual: for instance, the atomic clock, which helped prove Einstein’s theory that time compresses as one approaches the speed of light, might be paired with the Tokugawa clock, an elaborate 18th-century Japanese timepiece that could be manipulated to stretch the hours according to the season, so the sun would always rise and set at the same time. Both clocks, Hayward points out, speak to the elasticity of time, encouraging us to ponder the essence of time itself.

No one is sure where the National Time Museum will go after its five-year arrangement with the MSI expires. Lash says that the new museum’s board of directors, which has yet to be selected, might choose to keep it inside the MSI, though Walter says it could also be given a freestanding home on State Street, where it might attract a larger number of visitors. But all that will be worked out in time.

What Killed Killer Joe?

As reported here last week, New York producers Darren Lee Cole and Scott Morfee are pulling the plug on their money-losing Chicago revival of Tracey Letts’s Killer Joe; the show closes April 30. Reviews were mixed to negative, but Doug Bragan, owner of the Ivanhoe Theater, thinks the New Yorkers misunderstood the local market: “You don’t charge $40 a ticket in a 200-seat house in this town.” Cole and Morfree, he says, were also foolish to start out with seven performances a week. In New York the tourist trade can sustain a play during the week, but here Cole and Morfree had trouble selling seats to all but the Friday and Saturday evening performances. The producing duo claim that audiences leaving the theater liked the production, but apparently it failed to develop strong word of mouth. Despite the loss of their investment in Chicago, Cole and Morfree have not given up on mounting Killer Joe in other American markets. Vows Cole, “We are going on.”

Art accompanying story in printed newspaper (not available in this archive): photo/J.B. Spector.