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Why do they call it that? Hortense the City Hall clock tower - The old lady watching over Tampa

11:12 AM, Sep 22, 2011   |    comments
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Inside Hortense, the clocktower at the top of Tampa City Hall.

She's seen just about everything; she's one old lady. But time has been mighty kind to her. Here's a look at the importance... of Hortense.

Why do they call it Hortense?

Hortense is nearly 100 years old. She lives high above Downtown Tampa. And she doesn't get many visitors.

But we're going to introduce you to her.

Hortense is the name of the crowning feature at the top of Tampa City Hall -- its clocktower.

For nearly a century, Hortense has been watching over Tampa... like a giant watch.

Inside the brick and frosted-glass clocktower, Hortense's gears have been turning nonstop for 96 years.

These "clockworks" are attached to a metal frame that stands as tall as a person and looks something like an old-time sewing machine.

Standing there, in that steaming-hot space the size of a walk-in closet, feels -- ironically -- almost timeless.

Workers have stood in precisely that spot, hearing those same sounds, and suffocating in that same humid heat since before many of our grandparents were even born.

But in the beginning, this clocktower -- almost had no clock.

When a new City Hall was in the works around 1914, leaders said they didn't have enough cash to put any tick-tock up top.

A clock was just too expensive.

So, a few folks put their hands out, and started a clock-raising fundraiser.

"There was a young woman named Hortense Oppenheimer, who -- with her father Louis Oppenheimer, who was a doctor in the area -- really went above and beyond and raised quite a bit of money for it," explained Rodney Kite-Powell.

Kite-Powell is the curator of history at the Tampa Bay History Center, which stands just a handful of blocks from Hortense in Tampa's Channelside district.

He says the clock was named after its biggest backer, Hortense.

Every hour, Hortense chimes the number of the hour, and on the half-hour, it sends out a single gong.

These days, that sounds nice and nostalgic. But for decades after the clock's 1915 unveiling, those ceaseless sounds were a very important public service.

"A lot of people still didn't have watches then," Kite-Powell said. "And so they relied on clock towers to tell them what time it was."

A clock could get lonely, living like Rapunzel at the top of several towering ladders.

But city workers often stop by to keep her gears going. For the sake of their hearing, though, those workers usually stay 29 minutes or less.

They prefer to work between the astonishingly loud moments when a hammer clangs down onto the outside rim of Hortense's huge Liberty Bell-sized bell.

Also stowed high in the tower: a time capsule. It will patiently listen to Hortense's every gong until it's opened on the city's 150th birthday in 2037.

Like a ticking clock, life in Tampa has marched on over the past 96 years. And Hortense has watched every second of it.

Why do they call it that? Now you know.

We feature new "Why do they call it that?" stories each Wednesday on 10 News at 5 a.m. and 5 p.m.

Check out previous editions of the Emmy-nominated series at our "Why do they call it that?" website: wtsp.com/callitthat.

Grayson Kamm, 10 News

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