Why Are We So Excited About the Derby Clock?

The Derby Clock (technically called the Louisville Clock) is back on Fourth Street. 

Barney Bright’s kinetic sculpture was first dedicated in 1976 in the Louisville Galleria. Over the subsequent 36 years, the clock has been broken, repaired and moved. It was placed in Theater Square last year and crews have spent the last few weeks making sure the carved figurines that run a mock horse race around the clock are in working order. 

The clock is just a short walk from its original home, and it’s an even shorter walk from WFPL headquarters. We’ve watched the clock practice runs for two months. Sometimes everything went smoothly, sometimes it didn’t run at all. Here’s a video of one of the early workouts:

I was wary of the clock’s new location at first. But as the practice runs carried on this summer, I saw people leaving tables at nearby restaurants to see what was happening. I saw people make special trips. These practice runs have drawn attention to Fourth Street. The clock’s Twitter account has joked with fans, drawn by the novelty, but occasionally disappointed by runs that never happened and other malfunctions. 

The clock will be rededicated today at 5:00 (though the clock itself isn’t set, and it may read 3:00). If all goes according to plan, all of the pieces will move and the sounds of squeaking will be drowned out by music (now a banjo version of Camptown Races). Mayor Greg Fischer will replace Harvey Sloane, the mayor who first cut the ribbon on the clock. Theater Square will fill in for the Galleria, which is now Fourth Street Live. 

Here’s a video of the clock’s original dedication. Look at the background. There are department stores on Fourth Street. There are crowds. There are things on Fourth Street that the city is trying to bring back. The clock’s other temporary and potential homes have been distinctive Louisville destinations: The Derby Museum, the Fair and Expo Center, the Zoo. But despite some activity, Fourth Street isn’t much of a destination anymore, aside from the crowds that visit Fourth Street Live on weekend nights. 

Fourth Street Live was supposed to be part of a great revitalization of downtown. But while the area north of the development has seen a surge of activity and restaurant openings, the excitement hasn’t moved south. The area below Muhammad Ali Boulevard has its features, but the challenge of South Fourth Street lies in connecting it to the rest of the city and pulling people toward Broadway. You can do that with restaurants, but there are restaurants to the north. You can do it with retail, but no one seems to be moving in on our block (The Leading Man clothing is still slated to occupy a renovated building on Chestnut, but the move has been delayed). You can also draw people in with an attraction.

The Louisville Clock won’t make any money (it has historically cost thousands to maintain). And it’s an easy target for ridicule. As an outsider, I don’t really understand all of the love and nostalgia for it. But all the things that make it seem silly—its size, its bright paint, the noise—also make the clock impossible to ignore. 

Gabe Bullard

Gabe Bullard is the director of news and editorial strategy.

@gbullard

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