It’s About Time for Seth Thomas

Bisno-Schall Gallery mural by Ed Lister
Sue De Lapa

TICK TOCK: About a month from now, the hottest new attraction in town will open in the heart of the Santa Barbara Courthouse: a clanging, clanking contraption looking like a Rube Goldberg cartoon invention.

A once-cluttered room housing the 1929 Seth Thomas tower clock will be opened as a living museum to — what else? — time.

A starry ceiling simulating the heavens on the night of December 4, 1602, the date explorer Sebastián Vizcaíno named the coast in honor of St. Barbara, will look down on a refurbished clock and a huge mural chronicling the story of time from the days of Stonehenge to Galileo to the present.

Barney Brantingham

And, for once, the public will be allowed into the clock room on special docent tours or to gaze down through a window from the stairway above.

The tower clock has been stopped for the work, but once the project’s finished in late November or early December, the hours will again be bonged out, not from the five giant new bells being installed for historic ambiance, but from an electronic sound system actuated by the clock. (No night chimes or bongs, though, for the sake of nearby residents.)

Once the word is out, I predict that every teacher in town will be clamoring to lead his or her class into the magic room, and tourists will be flocking.

The other day, I found two of the restoration leaders there putting finishing touches on the pendulum clock, which has been faithfully ticking away since it was installed when the courthouse opened in 1929.

“It’s a pristine example of a Seth Thomas tower clock,” said Robert Ooley, project director and county architect. “It’s probably the most accurate mechanical tower clock in the United States,” said Rodney Baker, local actor and project coordinator for the Courthouse Docent Council.

A few years ago, Ooley gave me a tour of the dark, dingy room, and I felt it was a shame that the public couldn’t see this marvelous timepiece with its spinning gears, huge shafts, and outstretched arms driving the hands on all four sides of the tower.

Then, a couple of years ago, Dr. David Bisno, a retired ophthalmologist and science historian, took his class “It’s About Time” to the room so he could best explain the inner workings of classic clockworks. It was probably the first time the public was allowed in to see the creaking mechanism.

Also there were courthouse clock master Mostyn Gale, the clock’s volunteer engineer and an expert in horology, the science of measuring time; docent Sue Mellor; and Montecito horology buffs Dick and Maryan Schall.

They started the ball rolling to transform a “ratty-tatty room” into a vest-pocket museum now dubbed the Bisno-Schall Gallery in honor of the financial sponsors. To re-create the night sky of December 4, 1602, Baker tackled the demanding task of weaving miles of fiber optics into the ceiling.

Ooley and Baker led Sue De Lapa and me down into the basement, where we viewed artist Ed Lister’s 67-foot, richly illustrated mural that, when installed upstairs, will form a historical march of time with a pantheon of celestial thinkers along the top and events in Santa Barbara as a time line below.

When the courthouse opened in 1929, the plan was to install bells high atop the tower, but that was dropped because it would have prevented the public from enjoying views from the 70-foot perch. Yet all the equipment remained in the clock room, available for Ooley and others to mount new bells in the room, if only for show.

Normally, clock rooms are only accessible via stairs and ramps, but this one can be reached through a door only a few steps from the elevator. The project is being financed by the Schalls and David and Fay Bisno.

More details are available at Also in the works next year is a basement café and gift shop.


Please note this login is to submit events or press releases. Use this page here to login for your Independent subscription

Not a member? Sign up here.