Hotel E is about to open, without the chiming of the tower bell

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Downtown Santa Rosa’s stately Empire Building, a sentinel overlooking Courthouse Square for 111 years, elicits all sorts of memories. But as a new luxury boutique hotel, it will no longer ring a bell.

The antique, four-faced, domed, on-again off-again clock atop the landmark, about to be reborn as Hotel E, is once again keeping time. But the hoteliers have had the top-of-the-hour bell strike disarmed.

“It’s quite loud,” said Vern Lakusta, general manager of the 71-room hotel that could open as soon as Monday. “Guests, in their sleep, don’t want to be hearing that.”

The charm of the hourly bell chime, essential to the town back when watches and clocks were rare luxuries, will be missed by some. Certainly by Stan Jaffe.

“It’s a historical part of our community,” said Jaffe, a Keysight Technologies engineer and mechanical wizard who knows the 1908 clock like few others.

Five years ago, when the owners and primary occupants of the Empire Building were principals of the law firm Geary, Shea, O’Donnell, Grattan & Mitchell, Jaffe and several engineer buddies accepted the challenge of figuring out why the clock’s hammer-to-bell hourly chime wasn’t working and fixing it.

They found that teeth had broken off a 6-inch gear essential to the strike mechanism. Jaffe, who’d learned clock repair from Santa Rosa master Cyrus Wind Dancer, discovered for sale online a gear manufactured by the maker of the tower clock, the former E. Howard & Co. of Massachusetts.

He bought the gear with money put up by John Roche and Cory Vader, who in 2014 operated their information technology business, V&R Solutions, from a rented space in the Empire Building and took responsibility for winding the clock.

The old but never-used gear needed a notch in order to work. Jaffe and his team took it to Keysight model maker Randy Miranda, who, with the blessings of his employer, cut the notch.

It made for jubilant moment when, in November 2014, the crew of volunteer tinkerers installed the gear and, after some adjustments, felt the percussion there in the clock tower as the massive timepiece clicked to 4 o’clock, the strike mechanism whirred to life and the hammer struck the bell: Bong! Bong! Bong! Bong!

In the intervening five years, much has happened.

The law firm and all the other tenants of the Empire Building moved out, and owners John Geary, Pat Grattan and Thom Taylor put the landmark on the market. In July 2016, it sold for $2.2 million to a partnership led by Hugh Futrell, the developer taking the lead in the transformation of downtown Santa Rosa.

Work began nearly two years ago on the project to make a boutique hotel of the four-story edifice that served first as a home to banks and subsequently as the vertical campus of Empire College and as a classic office building.

Throughout the construction, the clock has been frozen. As the project neared completion about three weeks ago, the Hotel E general manager reached out to engineer and amateur clocksmith Jaffe: Would he come back to see if he could get the clock running again?

Jaffe returned to the clock tower and found that someone had broken in, caused some damage to the mechanism and stolen the hefty crank needed to raise the clock’s 1,600-pound weight.

Jaffe spoke to a blacksmith friend, who created a new crank. Jaffe got the clock working again, though repairs still are needed to a hand on the tower’s western clock face.

The rebirth of the Empire Building is just about to happen. Hotel general manager Lakusta said if city inspectors make the final signoffs on the project Monday, the doors will open at once.

It pleases Lakusta to have the clock working, and he enjoyed hearing the hourly bell strike. But he decided the chime had to be silenced.

“It’s definitely something you heard throughout the entire hotel,” he said. Concluding that hotel guests would not appreciate hearing 10 bongs at 10 p.m., 11 at 11 p.m., he asked Jaffe to disable the bell strike.

Jaffe reluctantly disabled the strike mechanism.

“I think it’s not super loud,” the engineer said.

He said he stands ready to come back and restore the hourly chime “if they change their mind.”

Someone who’s quite familiar with the clock and who missed the clock strikes when the old mechanism in the tower was unwound or inoperative is Ann Stashak. She’s the longtime receptionist at the Geary Shea law firm that called the Empire Building home until moving nearly five years ago to E Street.

Stashak always liked hearing the on-the-hour chime.

“It was pleasant. It was cool,” she said. “Many years it didn’t work, so when it did everybody thought it was pretty neat.”

But Stashak always heard the chime while she working inside the Empire Building, during the day. Asked to imagine have the bell sound while attempting to sleep in the landmark.

“That would be a problem in the middle of the night,” she said. “That could be annoying.”

You can reach Staff Writer Chris Smith at 707-521-5211 or chris.smith@pressdemocrat.com.

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