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Tales of Capitol Art

The 11-foot-tall, 192-year-old decorative mahogany timepiece might be one of the most frequently referenced pieces of art in the Senate. Nearly every Tuesday that Congress is in session, the Senate majority and minority leaders hold separate press conferences near the Ohio Clock at the conclusion of the weekly policy lunches held nearby. Senate aides e-mail advisories telling reporters to meet their bosses at the Ohio Clock. Clumps of people mill around the area; some call it the Ohio Clock Corridor, others just call it the Ohio Clock. But the clock is rarely the main attraction.

The Senate purchased the Ohio Clock from Thomas Voigt of Philadelphia in 1816, and it was delivered in 1817, says Deborah Wood, a collections manager in the Office of the Senate Curator. The Capitol was still being rebuilt after the British partially burned it in the War of 1812, but once it reopened, 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.

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The Ohio Clock lives in a corner of the archway that leads from the back of the Senate floor to the Old Senate Chamber and the Rotunda. On its dark, shiny surface, underneath the wide face, is a crest with 17 stars and 17 vertical stripes. Some have speculated that these stars and stripes are responsible for its being called the Ohio Clock, since Ohio is the nation’s 17th state. Others think an 1897 picture of then-Ohio Sen. Marcus Hanna standing in front of the clock may indicate a relationship between the state and the piece of furniture. But neither of these theories has ever been confirmed.

“There’s no evidence that [the clock] has anything to do with Ohio,” Wood says.

The clock’s exterior includes several intricate carving patterns and forms. Loops of branches and leaves surround the crest and clock face, and an eagle sits on top, wings open, beak agape and talons clutching a bunch of arrows.

The clock keeps the correct time but isn’t fully functioning, Wood says. (The bell, for instance, no longer works.) One of its functions, though, was surely unintended — it’s said that it once acted as a hiding place for whiskey.

The clock lived through a 1983 terrorist bombing in the Capitol, though the blast blew out the glass front and police had to pry open part of the clock to make sure no other bomb was inside.

The bombs it endures today are merely the rhetorical kind. Senators, staffers and reporters do much of their work in front of the Ohio Clock.

“It’s iconic in that regard,” Wood says.