News Column

Burlco museum fears time's running out on it

May 27, 2014

By Jan Hefler, The Philadelphia Inquirer



May 27--RIVERSIDE -- One of his old jobs was to hand-crank the 400-pound clock that sat atop the seven-story Keystone Watchcase building on Pavilion Avenue.

But on Monday, Bob Knoll's mission was to greet the hundreds who visited the Riverside Historical Society Museum, located on the second floor -- one day before the planning board was scheduled to decide whether to allow the landmark to be turned into luxury apartments.

"I'm the clock winder," Knoll, 76, said with a chuckle. When the factory was open, he would spend 20 minutes a day, once a week, priming the hands to move around the clock. The townspeople relied upon the clock to tell the time and would call when it failed to deliver, he said.

The factory, which opened in the early 1900s and closed in 1956, was once the world's largest manufacturer of silver and gold plated cases for pocketwatches, according to the Historical Society. It is on the National Register of Historic Places.

After it closed, the building was vacant for decades and fell into disrepair until Lippincott, Jacoby and Goudy, an engineering firm, purchased it in 1988. The firm occupied the first floor and allowed the historical society to display its artifacts and black-and-white photographs on the second floor. The rest of the building is empty.

"I'm going to the meeting Tuesday to explain why they should keep us here," said Alice Smith, the historical society's president, saying she would try to convince the potential new owners.

Brooklyn-based Shimshabs Partners has an agreement of sale to convert the building into 64 spacious units if it can obtain approvals.

Traditionally, the museum has been open to the public on Memorial Day, and also by appointment on other days for school groups and other organizations. Smith said she hopes this won't be the last open house.

A dozen gleaming engraved pocketwatches were displayed on Monday, attracting a wide-eyed crowd. Among the group was a researcher from France who wanted to see if the artist she is studying had any renderings on file at the museum.

"I've been in touch with Mrs. Smith, hoping she would have a mention of the artist, Leon Delachaux," said Julia Guillon. "He spent 15 years in engraving before he became a painter" she said, noting he worked in the United States in the late 1800s.

The watches on display delicately depicted trains, stags, and stallions and were made of sterling silver with gold inlay.

Theophilus Zurbrugg, the Swiss inventor who founded the factory, created "metals of alloys to make the watches cheap enough for the common man to buy," Smith said. She said Zurbrugg was "a man before his time" who employed women and minorities and provided workers' housing and a hospital.

Shawn Mufalli, 52, who used to live in the shadow of the building, said this was his 10th visit to the museum. Now a Delanco resident, he enjoys learning about the history of the watches and bought a 100-year-old Elgin pocketwatch "just to have it." It still keeps time and he carries it with him to weddings and special occasions.

Joyce Walton, an 82-year-old lifelong Riverside resident, said her great-grandmother, Laura Fichter, had worked in the factory. "My great-grandmother used to tell of sitting on a high stool and polishing the watchcases before they were etched," she said.

Another exhibit showed the badge that once adorned the hat of the elevator operator and a ledger containing the names of the employees, about 1,000 in the plant's heyday.

There also were the huge inner workings of the clock, recovered years after they were stolen from the building when it was vacant, and now replaced by a computerized system that keeps the clock at the top of the tower still keeping time.

jhefler@phillynews.com

856-779-3224 @JanHefler

www.inquirer.com/burlcobuzz

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(c)2014 The Philadelphia Inquirer

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Source: Philadelphia Inquirer (PA)


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