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Delacorte music clock with animals figurines at the Central Park Zoo in in New York City
Photograph: By Lena Chert / Shutterstock

8 secrets of Central Park’s iconic Delacorte Clock

It's hard work keeping this musical menagerie on time.

Rossilynne Skena Culgan
Written by
Rossilynne Skena Culgan

Every half hour, people gather at the base of the Delacorte Clock next to the Central Park Zoo for a nostalgic visual and auditory spectacle. As the new hour or half-hour dawns, a carousel of intricately sculpted animals spins around while the clock chimes jaunty songs. A duo of sculpted monkeys perch atop the clock tower, hoisting tiny mallets to ring a bell.

For more than five decades, this clock has brought joy to visitors, especially little ones in strollers who crane their necks upward to admire the animals. But keeping this finicky display in tip-top shape requires hard work from a team of park staff. Those caretakers invited Time Out New York to join them atop the clock for a behind-the-scenes look at one of the most beloved parts of Central Park. Here's what we learned. 

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1. The clock was inspired by European designs

While visiting Europe, magazine publisher George Delacorte became enamored with Glockenspiel and automaton clocks, explained Matt Reiley, Central Park Conservancy's manager for conservation. In particular, he fell in love with the Zytglogge, a whimsical clock in Bern, Switzerland. 

Delacorte, the founder of Dell Publishing, donated funds to build the clock, which spans the area between the Central Park Zoo and the Tisch Children's Zoo. It opened in 1965. 

Delacorte Music Clock by the Central Park Zoo in Manhattan. It is a three-tiered mechanical clock which plays music as the animals spin around.
Photograph: By Felix Lipov / Shutterstock

2. The design has changed a bit over time

The current version of the clock is slightly different than the 1960s version, Reiley explained, though the architectural differences are minimal to the untrained eye. Some Victorian-style elements, which no longer exist today, can be seen in old photos.

Reiley and his team diligently preserve the bronze sculptures, carefully cleaning and waxing each one once a year.

3. Six animals parade around the clock 

Six bronze creatures spin around the clock, each one with its own unique character. There’s a goat playing a horn, a hippo pulling a bow across a violin, an elephant squeezing an accordion, a penguin tapping on the drums, a bear shaking a tambourine, and a kangaroo (plus a baby kangaroo) blowing into a French horn. Each creature conveys outstanding detail, like the sharp claws of the bear, the wrinkly trunk of the elephant and the fearsome horns of the goat. 

Italian sculptor Andrea Spadini, who happened to be doing a commission at Tiffany & Co. at the time, ended up getting the contract for the work. The base of each animal bears his signature. 

Two park technicians work on the clock.
Photograph: By Rossilynne Skena Culgan for Time Out

4. The clock demands daily maintenance 

Reily describes the clock as "rather tempestuous with operations." The animals run along an open track, kind of like a train set under a Christmas tree. The problem is that if water, leaves, or dirt get onto the track—which is inevitable, of course—problems can arise. Plus, the mechanical parts suffer plenty of wear and tear. 

A. Hamid, the Central Park Conservancy's foreperson for preservation, checks on the clock every single day and often twice a day during the fall. He uses a leaf blower and a broom to keep the track free of debris. Thankfully, he has help from his team, which includes preservation technician Cara Cincione.

Plus, they have an extra secret weapon: The sculpture's elephant. This piece is seen as the first animal on the parade, and it has a tiny broom affixed to the bottom of its platform to sweep the track for the rest of the band. 

The park's clock foreman shows a wheel from the clock.
Photograph: By Rossilynne Skena Culgan for Time Out

5. The clock's caretaker knows its every move

After studying with the clock’s previous caretaker, Hamid learned every last detail about the clock. When atop the clock’s tower, he listens carefully to the hums and clicks emanating from the mechanical parts.

"You have to listen to the animals. When they are turning, each one has its own sound and you know what's going on, if it is a ball bearing, if it is about balance, if it is about the rail," Hamid says. 

He's spent six years working with the clock, and he's able to track practically imperceptible changes in movement and sound.

"This is the Delacorte Clock whisperer," Reiley said.

The park's clock foreman with the goat sculpture.
Photograph: By Rossilynne Skena Culgan for Time Out

6. If the clock's down, you might see a different show

Given the clock's temperamental nature, it's not always in working order. If you happen to visit when Hamid and his crew are making repairs, he's been known to do a little dance of his own to entertain the kids watching below. 

7. The music changes for the holiday season

The tunes of this clock are just as important as the actual time of day. The music, which is digitally programmed by Elderhorst Bells, changes during the year. Usually, it plays nursery rhymes, but during the holiday season, it plays Christmas tunes. 

The musical menagerie performs on the half hour between 8am and 6pm daily.

People near the Delacorte Clock in Central Park
Photograph: By Joseph Perone / Shutterstock

8. The work is a true labor of love

For Hamid, providing a spark of happiness for kids makes the hard work worth it. 

"I fought to work on this. I didn't want to give up on this," Hamid says. "It's a big magnitude for me. It makes me happy." 

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