The sound of chimes has been reverberating in my store every quarter hour for the past two days. With every “ding-dong” my heart lightens a bit. I am amazed at how something so simple can bring back memories and a sense of peace and calm. The Flemington clock chimes are ringing again.
The chimes of Flemington had been a tradition as far back as anyone I know remembers. They were located in the Flemington National Bank building, across the street from my store. Rumor had it that they had originally been located in the building next door to mine, the “clock tower” building, which is topped, unsurprisingly, by a four-sided clock tower. That clock has not worked in living memory either, and the building had fallen into great disrepair. Several years ago a developer bought both buildings, gutted them, and brought them into the 21st century. He has a sense of history, and the exteriors were kept as near as possible to their original styles. The clock itself, although beautifully dressed now, is beyond repair at any reasonable cost.
The building which was the headquarters of a local bank serving generations of Hunterdon County farmers, small businesses, and families had been well kept, but the vagaries of modern day finance caused the bank company itself to be bought, its purchaser to be bought, etc., until the fine old institution was a branch of one of the largest banks in the country. This bank became a tenant of the developer, but required that the interior of the branch office conform to the corporate standards. Gone were the dark wood railings and teller stations, the high ceilings and windows, the chandeliers, and most distressing, the huge vault which had been centered opposite the entrance. Instead there was pale gray paint and slightly darker gray carpeting, no woodwork, Plexiglas-protected positions for the workers, and low ceilings. The windows were covered up or minimized. It was like entering a big box store, about as bland and uninviting as an office could be. The employees, no doubt influenced by the atmosphere, were as cold as the office.
The old is not wiped away so easily. The mega-bank, possibly because of recent losses in an economic crisis they helped create, decided that its branch in downtown Flemington was no longer needed or profitable, or both, and left. Another local bank, not originated in Flemington, but nearby, is growing and took the space. Their remodeling restored dark wood railings and teller stations, rich green carpeting, and chandelier-type lighting. The ugly kiosk installed so that bank personnel could have minimal contact with customers has been replaced with an old (or old-looking) desk with pens, deposit and withdrawal forms, etc. The staff greets every customer with warm smiles. And best of all – the vault, a great steel fortress, with a door that looks like it would take three men to move, is front and center; it was never gone, just wall-boarded over.
So what do banks and chimes have to do with each other? Around the time that the mega-bank turned a lovely old space into a cookie-cutter outpost of its business, the chimes, coincidentally or not, were broken. The bank was unwilling or unable to repair them, and so the music stopped. We all missed it, but such is the price of progress, or so we thought.
The week before Thanksgiving, the news broke: the chimes were coming back! Another Flemington tradition is the Thanksgiving Day “Turkey Trot,” a 5K run that benefits a local charity. The chimes would start the race and sound on the quarter-hour from then on. The old chimes had played seasonal music at certain times of the year (harvest songs in November, Christmas music of course, and patriotic music at the appropriate holidays). The return of this delightful custom is anticipated with joy by all of us who live and work downtown.
When the news was out that the chimes were returning, we found out what a magnificent blend of old and new had occurred. The developer who had renovated and still owns the bank building had attempted repairs, but found that the cost for such an old mechanism was prohibitive. The Business Improvement District took the project under wing, but found that even a digital apparatus to replace the old chimes would cost several thousand dollars. However: “There’s an app for that.” An IPod Touch and an amplifier, a timer and the existing speakers, and the bells are ringing again. I defy you to tell the difference.
Flemington is one of hundreds, if not thousands, of small towns steeped in history struggling to incorporate the needs of modern commerce into its traditional behaviors. In our case, we have seen the Flemington Speedway, once a dirt track drawing race cars from around the country and the site of the County Fair, become a shopping plaza anchored by the “Big W.” The complex of buildings which housed Flemington Cut Glass, once a destination for lovers of crystal and a training magnet for craftsmen, is now vacant and about to be demolished for town houses. But the old Court House, replaced by a modern facility nearby, has been restored and is being used for cultural events. The Stangl Pottery factory, once repurposed as an outlet for a stoneware manufacturer, is now a center for local craftspeople, with the original firing ovens still in place. There is a comfort in maintaining the old, but a risk that it will become unmaintainable and disappear completely. There is an energy and vitality that comes from building new, efficient structures, but a risk that identity and community will be lost. Somewhere in between are the chimes: a comforting reminder of the past punctuating the day, enabled by the technology of today. As I think of the towns that have been partially or completely destroyed by the recent storm, particularly those along the New Jersey shore, I hope that as they rebuild they are able to retain the history that has made them each unique, while modernizing for the needs of today and the future. The balancing of old and new can be done when creative minds are put to the task; I am reminded every quarter hour.