One of my favorite sights to show visitors in Santa Barbara is, oddly enough, the Courthouse. Not because it’s a place I spend much of my time (I have–miraculously–never been arrested, thank you very much) but because it is a beautiful and historic site that epitomizes the Spanish style architecture that defines Santa Barbara. The Courthouse website itself declares, “For almost 160 years this site has been the home of local government and a place of civic pride and celebration” and I, too, am a testament to that claim as I proudly march my guests up its intricately tiled steps and in through the grandiose doorways.
So when I recently found myself hosting a Couchsurfer from England and showing him around town, we inevitably strolled down the sunny street a few blocks from downtown and made our way to the Courthouse. While courtroom doors are locked with a sign announcing “In Session”, the building itself is open to the public and tourists can casually meander through the dimly lit hallways and up the winding stairwells.
The top of the several-stories high building has a viewing tower with magnificent panoramic views of the ocean to the south, the mountains to the north, and the orange tiled rooftops of Santa Barbara that lie between. As we climbed the stairs to the tower, we came across a locked door to the side of the staircase labeled “Clock Room”, and through the window we could spy a giant contraption of whirring, spinning, undulating mechanical parts.
Suddenly, a man appeared behind us with a set of keys and a mischievous glint in his eye, and asked if we’d like to have a look inside the “Clock Room”. Despite the potential serial killer scenario that could have transpired, we shrugged and followed him inside.
We must have stepped through the doors right at the top of the hour, for almost immediately the mechanical contraption sprang to life; it clicked and hummed while tiny metal chains whizzed around in circles, and a giant pendulum swung back and forth as weights methodically lifted several feet in the air and dropped back down. Above us, hammers struck four enormous bells and the deep BONG bellowed out to signify the hour. I was mesmerized.
The Clock Man began enthusiastically describing how everything worked within the contraption to keep the time accurate down to the millisecond. He explained that things like temperature and barometric pressure affect its accuracy because they cause metals to expand or contract and then he demonstrated how to change the tiny weights to accommodate the changes and keep the clock on track.
He pointed out the mural that wrapped around the walls and told us that it simultaneously depicted the development of Santa Barbara on the same timeline as the evolution of keeping time.
As he identified different points of interest throughout the mural, he casually pointed to a concealed door on the wall and mentioned, “And that’s where the speakers are”.
I frowned in confusion. “Speakers for what? Can you make announcements from here?” I envisioned sneaking into this closet and making all kinds of ridiculous announcements for the entire city to hear.
“For the bells,” he shrugged. He pointed at the bells above us and asked slyly, “What do you think those are made of?”
Wondering to myself what bells are usually made of, I guessed, “I dunno, brass? Some kind of heavy metal?”
He laughed, and winked. “They’re styrofoam! They’re fake! Actually, they were just recently installed, along with those hammers, to simulate the ringing of bells; really, though, it’s just a very powerful speaker playing the sound of bells you hear everyday.”
He seemed unaware of my jaw dropped in disbelief, and continued on.
“The clock here is all very real, and after being restored is one of the few tower clocks around to be in mint condition. It keeps the time and is hooked up to that electronical station below and signals the stereo when it’s time to play the bell sounds. It’s a mix of 19th century mechanisms with modern technology. Pretty neat, huh?”
I smiled and nodded, but I couldn’t help feeling a bit betrayed. The bell sound is fake! I don’t know why it suddenly mattered so much to me that it be real, but I was surprised to find myself so disappointed. I suppose it’s because it seemed the charm of the bell tower’s antiquity had somehow been stolen from me. These days, when every little thing is being taken over by technology, we have a tendency to romanticize those things that emerge untouched by modernity and stand as a symbol of the past. Maybe I’m just being melodramatic, but it seemed bizarre and counterintuitive to put all that work into maintaining an elaborate clock–only for it to set off electronic chimes.
Regardless, it was a unique and interesting experience which I think more people should explore. The clock itself is fascinating and much funding and work has gone into its refurbishment and maintenance. The clock tower room is not open to the public for now, but if you pay a visit to the courthouse, try climbing the stairs; maybe you’ll get lucky like I did and stumble across the Clock Man, eager to share the secret of his mechanical lair…
What do you think of the fake bells? Am I just being silly?