Group begins new effort to replace Ocean Beach clock tower
New London — Dave Sugrue has a broken piece of a clock face in his office at Ocean Beach Park.
It’s one of the few remaining pieces of the iconic 140-foot clock tower that overlooked the park for nearly 50 years but whose clock faces crashed through the boardwalk in 1988 when workers were attempting to refurbish the steel structure.
Sugrue, now manager at the park, watched the entire fiasco.
“It was tragic, the day it came down,” he said. “It was a central meeting place and is probably still on the nautical charts. It gave the whole boardwalk a different, kind of majestical feel.”
A new movement is afoot to replace the clock tower, which, prior to its removal and later disappearance, was the focal point at the park.
“It was visible from the entire beach and Long Island Sound. You always knew you could find somebody because you would just tell them to ‘meet me at the clock tower,’” said retired City Clerk Clark van der Lyke.
“If you were a kid and you got lost, you went to the tower,” he said.
Van der Lyke and New London business owner Jeff Suntup are spearheading the formation of a committee intent on raising enough funds to erect a replica of the old clock and install it where it once stood.
In addition to people who already have shown interest, the public is invited to attend a meeting at 5 p.m. Wednesday in the City Hall Council Chambers.
Suntup said initial estimates put the cost of replacement at $300,000. He said he thinks enough people care about the tower that individuals and businesses will “step up” to donate toward the cause. Corporate sponsors also will be welcomed.
Initial fundraising plans include the creation and sale of souvenir cards with photos of the clock tower that also will serve as admittance to the future dedication ceremony. Suntup also envisions an online GoFundMe campaign.
Suntup grew up and still lives three blocks from the beach and expects nostalgia will play a role in the campaign.
“It is the legacy of my generation of how the beach was. The tower was the place that everybody came and met — a central point that was safe,” Suntup said.
He envisions a digital display with an antenna array on the structure to improve the historically bad cell service in the area. He said the digital display will allow for advertising space and revenue.
Van der Lyke said the idea of a digital display is likely a topic to be debated when the committee starts its work.
For those not familiar with the former tower, erected prior to the opening of the park in 1940, Van der Lyke described it as “impressive, almost like a battleship tower,” with steel lattice topped by a cat walk with flags and clock faces on four sides.
The fate of the clock is something of a mystery. Workers were attempting to lift the entire structure with a crane from the parking lot when the crane buckled and lifted off the ground. A worker had cut away the top portion with a torch to relieve some of the weight when it crashed to the boardwalk, Sugrue recalls.
Sugrue said the steel lattice was being stored in the parking lot when it disappeared sometime later. No one is quite sure where it went, but Sugrue said it is likely it was scrapped.
Save Ocean Beach, a group dedicated to raising funds and performing work at the park, has talked about restoring the clock for years.
In 2012 the nonprofit pitched the idea of using a light tower from the parking lot to replace the clock tower. Nesting osprey were a stumbling block to that project. Again in 2016, Save Ocean Beach President Tom Quintin created and installed a miniature version of the tower at the first hole of the park’s miniature golf course to drum up interest in a new clock.
While never able to replace the clock, the nonprofit has raised an estimated $750,000 through fundraisers and grants for other projects that included a replacement of the boardwalk, a nature walk along the cove, a children's playground and various infrastructure improvements.
Quintin said the efforts of his group never seemed to spark the kind of interest — or investment — that he had hoped for. Save Ocean Beach went so far as to enlist the Verdin clock company to draw up conceptual designs of a new tower. The major hurdle, as he sees it, is a costly engineering study of the tower's original foundation to determine if it will hold a new tower. The foundation consists of nine 75-year-old wooden pilings topped by concrete.
"It would be quite an expense to drive new pilings," Quintin said.
The work, if needed, also would have to include removal of a portion of the boardwalk to accommodate construction equipment, he said.
Van der Lyke said he hoped to connect with members of Save Ocean Beach and take on the restoration of the tower as a joint venture. Quintin said he was encouraged by the new public appeal for support and would join the effort.
Sugrue said he also would do whatever it takes to help the campaign, which he says is part of the ongoing work at the park. The Rotary Club of New London is planning to build a new $450,000 pavilion to replace the picnic pavilion at the south end of the park that was damaged during Hurricane Sandy in 2012.
“It makes me smile just thinking about it,” Sugrue said of the clock tower.
Editor's Note: This version corrects the spelling of Save Ocean Beach President Tom Quintin's name.
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