Being Three Faced: The Unsolved Mystery of the San Jose Clock Tower

"I'm on the outsiiiiiiide, I'm looking innnnnnn..."

“I’m on the outsiiiiiiide, I’m looking innnnnnn…”

Sarah Winchester’s crib isn’t the only mysterious edifice in San Jose.

It might be the fact that I watched Back to the Future this weekend and have clock towers on the brain, but I had the urge to explore an understated San Jose mystery: why the historic San Jose Clock Tower only has three faces. There is a circular indentation where the fourth clock—facing east—would be affixed, but alas, it remains empty. Conspiracy? A matter of structural integrity? Bizarrely obvious oversight?

Before we speculate on that, let’s look at some facts:

  • The clock tower was built in 1892…not a great year for the birth of a building since a bit over a decade later many of them would come crumbling down in the 1906 earthquake. And crumble down it did.
  • In 1908 the city began reconstructing the tower, a project that never fully reached completion.
  • The clock inside is a famed Nels Johnson Century Tower Clock which isn’t just your average, run of the mill Swatch. At the time, it was one of the finest clocks available (yet another mystery is why San Jose was chosen to receive such a gift), and is speculated to be “the first high-tech instrument built in San Jose.” Today it needs to be hand-wound, but is evidently still ridiculously accurate, to within a few seconds over a month.
  • And most importantly—be sure to soak this in— the original clock tower did, in fact, have four clock faces.

No one seems to know why the clock tower only has three faces today, not even those responsible for its preservation and restoration efforts. In response to my hard-hitting, investigative interrogation (“Would you be so good as to let me know why there are only three faces on the San Jose Clock Tower please?”) I got this response:

Hello Jordan. No one knows why the clock tower only has 3 faces.  The original tower did indeed have the fourth face.  You can see a picture of it on the FB page.

Wolf Blitzer I am not.

Perhaps no one does know for sure why the clock is the way it is, but theories abound. Here are a smattering.

Not giving the east side the time of day

Theory number one—which happens to be the one I’ve heard the most—is that the missing clock is a cheap shot to the east side. Why? Who knows. It’s not the first clock in history to include only 3 faces, intentionally slighting a side of town they were not particularly fond of. (A number of clocks in England, for example, are purported to have excluded a fourth clock face for this reason).Those involved with the restoration debate whether or not to include the fourth face, and there’s absolutely no reason not to. In an interview with The Metro, John Mitchell, who is spearheading the restoration efforts, made this remark:

‘If we don’t [add the fourth face], then people on the East Side will complain,’ Mitchell says. “They’ll say, ‘What, d’ya think the East Side isn’t good enough?'” (Knowing San Jose, that’s probably exactly what would happen.)”

Yet sources point to “no” on adding the fourth face. Sorry east side; you’ll have to resort to sun dial.

Wondering “weather” or not to do it

Seeing that the sun rises in the east, one school of thought believes that the weather-induced wear and tear of the clock would become an eyesore, particularly compared to the other faces. However, one would presume that if we can preserve centuries-old Italian frescoes, surely we could weather-guard a clock.

Time is money, people

One clock tower in England, paid for by public subscription, had either an ironworking business or shipyard that refused to pay for a fourth clock face because employers on that side of the clock didn’t want their employees wasting time “clockwatching.” In Silicon Valley, we’re all about productivity. So this theory makes an iota of sense that could promote it from “laughable” to “plausible.”

The question remains: will we ever solve the mystery of the clock? Will it ever be returned to its original form? And will they ever add the elusive fourth face?

Only time will tell.

Heard (or want to start) any other theories? Do tell!

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