On a cool, drizzly, and overcast day I traveled to the Pennsylvania State Capitol Building in Harrisburg to interview clockmaker and conservator Lili von Baeyer. Once, sometimes twice a month, von Baeyer travels from her workshop in Philadelphia to the PA State Capitol Building to maintain and conserve the 200-plus clocks housed there.
Ernest Hemmingway described Paris as “a movable feast.” Although the Capitol Building is not movable, it truly is a feast for the beholder. At the October 4, 1906, dedication President Theodore Roosevelt said, "This is the handsomest building I ever saw." The building is listed on the National Register of Historic Places and designated a National Historic Landmark. From the jaw-dropping 254-foot Rotunda to the mural-decorated Chamber of the House of Representatives, the Capitol building feels more like walking into a French emperor’s palace than the house of a modern-day democracy.
One of the many challenges as State Capitol clock conservator, aside from getting lost in the building’s mazelike layout, is keeping up with the sheer volume of work: nearly 200 clocks must maintain correct time. Von Baeyer accomplishes this by replacing the mechanical movements with quartz and taking them back to her workshop for service.
When von Bayer isn’t working for the Pennsylvania government, holding workshops at her studio, and conserving clocks for institutions such as The Museum of the American Revolution and the Franklin Institute, she’s doing on-site maintenance and repair on a dozen clocks for the Senate on Capitol Hill in Washington, DC.
Von Baeyer graduated with a degree in fine arts, and when I asked what brought her to horology, she said, “I was dissatisfied with my art and wanted to try something new. It was a curiosity that turned into a career.” She continued, ”Through art, I became obsessed with kinetic artists and wanted to make mechanical sculptures of my own so I apprenticed and studied at the NAWCC School of Horology.”
Despite her impressive résumé, von Baeyer is concerned yet confident about her future as a clockmaker and conservator. Like me, von Baeyer’s early career was greatly affected by the Great Recession of 2007-2009. Jobs in the creative field were hit just as hard as those in construction and manufacturing, with losses in the 100,000s in the design profession alone. Many artists had to take up more practical professions—a lot of us never came back.
“It’s a little nerve wracking when a contract expires,” von Bayer confesses but admits to a steady stream of work that continues to keep her busy. Her work has also gained recognition from sources such as the wristwatch website HODINKEE and travel website Atlas Obscura. The NAWCC certainly looks forward to following the curious and fascinating career of this talented horologist.
Learn more about Lili von Baeyer by visiting her website: www.vonbaeyer.com.