Ohio Clock strikes alarm in Senate

A proposal to install a protective barrier around the Senate’s iconic Ohio Clock has crashed like a lead balloon in a chamber that prides itself on tradition. 

The Senate has always been wary of change, be it a proposal to cap carbon emissions or simply messing with the furniture. And trying to change an object that has been a fixture in the upper chamber for almost 200 years has not gone over well.

“It’s the ugliest thing I’ve ever seen,” said Sen. John KerryJohn Forbes KerryJohn Kerry to NYU Abu Dhabi: We can't address world problems by 'going it alone' Juan Williams: Trump's dangerous lies on Iran Pompeo: US tried, failed to achieve side deal with European allies MORE (D-Mass.), a lawmaker known for his tasteful choice of ties and suits, who chuckled when he saw a snapshot of the bulky white banister the Senate curator’s office had proposed to surround the timepiece. 

Standing nearly a third of the height of the 11-foot clock, the prototype resembles the fake white-stone balustrade on a McMansion.

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“It certainly doesn’t enhance the appearance of the clock,” said Sen. Ben Nelson (D-Neb.).

“I would prefer a clear Plexiglas approach so you can see the bottom of the clock,” he added.

It’s doubtful, however, that other senators would applaud shielding the clock with a material more associated with hockey rinks than legislative bodies.

The Ohio Clock is perhaps the most famous piece of furniture in the Senate, and one that is frequently referenced by lawmakers, staff and reporters.

It is the headline decoration of the Ohio Clock corridor, where party leaders give weekly press conferences and where reporters crowd every Tuesday to interview lawmakers coming out of lunch meetings in the Mansfield Room. 

Diane Skvarla, the Senate curator, said the curator’s office refurbished the clock in December and is worried about Senate visitors and employees bumping into the antique and damaging it.

“Our concern is anyone getting close to the clock,” Skvarla said.

She also said she has scrapped the controversial banister design and is now exploring less obtrusive options.

“At this point we’re still in the design stages. We haven’t yet come up with anything. We had a mockup there and we’ve gone back to the drawing board,” she said.

But some Senate insiders think the worries about damage to the clock are overblown.

A veteran member of the Capitol Police force who has patrolled the Ohio Clock corridor for years said he had never seen anyone run into the timepiece, which is tucked into a nook opposite the chamber’s south door.

That wasn’t always where it sat. Originally, the clock stood in the Old Senate Chamber. When the present chamber was finished in 1859, Senate officials couldn’t find a spot for it. The legendary Senate doorkeeper Isaac Bassett selected a space for it in the hallway — the same place it stands today.

And senators have been concerned about its appearance since they ordered it from Thomas Voigt of Philadelphia in 1815.

“The dial to be about two feet in diameter, an hour, minute and second hand, a Spread Eagle on the top and the United States arms at foot. We wish it good and handsome and expect to pay accordingly,” Sen. David Daggett of Connecticut wrote when he ordered it that year.

The clock, which still keeps the time, has long been an object of fascination among lawmakers and staff.

Its name is rumored to come from the commemoration of Ohio’s admission to the union as the 17th state because the shield on the front of its case features 17 stars.

But Daggett mentioned nothing of the state when he first ordered the piece 12 years after Ohio joined the nation, by which time there was already an 18th state.

Others think an 1897 picture of then-Sen. Marcus Hanna (R-Ohio) standing in front of the clock might indicate a relationship between the state and the piece of furniture. But neither of these theories has ever been confirmed.

Another story was that senators used to hide liquor in the clock’s case during Prohibition. But Senate historians discount this possibility. There are no substantiating records and it would seem difficult to sneak a bottle of whiskey in the middle of a public corridor.

Kris Kitto contributed.