09/21/2009 05:12 am ET | Updated May 25, 2011

The Wizard of Park Avenue

I love being stopped dead in my tracks by something I come across on the streets of New York. I was struggling with two enormous backpacks on my way out of the city some time ago when I noticed this great bronze clock on the Schwarzenbach Building at 470 Park Avenue South btw. 31st & 32nd Street.


In my pictures it looks prominent, but this is something you'd almost assuredly miss on Park Ave South. Surrounded by tall buildings and skyscrapers leading up to the show-stealing MetLife building, it's nearly invisible to passersby, which is too bad because how often is there a wizard at work just above your head?


The clock is beautiful in itself, with its flowing silkworms and mulberry leaves (a silkworm's favorite food - Schwarzenbach was in the silk business), but the wizard casting a spell on top is especially great.


According to WallyG's flickr post and this NY Times FYI article, it was designed by McKim, Mead & White, and artist William Zorach. Apparently, this is not Merlin, but is in fact Zoroaster, "the mastermind and doer of all things." At his feet is a cocoon, and beyond sits a slave representing the "primitive forces and instincts of man."

It gets even better: at the top of the hour, Zoroaster waves his wand around, and "the slave swings a hammer against the cocoon, triggering the emergence of the 'Queen of Silk', tulip in her hand, and not until the hour has ceased striking does she disappear." I wish I had known - I would've stayed ten more minutes to see it.

This clock is a rarity - to this day, it's weight-driven by a wooden pendulum (though the wood tends to expand and contract due to the temperature, so you probably shouldn't set your watch by it). The detail is especially great - look at the symbols on his robe up close:


The symbols are pretty much invisible if you're not up close, which is of course impossible from the street, and yet the artist chose to add them regardless.

As a side note, this clock had stopped working and been left to fall apart until 1984, when the current building owner, S.L. Green, asked the Pratt Institute's chief engineer to restore it. It's great that they'd choose to preserve it, in a world where most companies would just as soon junk it and save the money.