At Howard County man's house, history chimes on the hour

John Danko examines a War of 1812-era grandfather clock he built.
John Danko examines a War of 1812-era grandfather clock he built. (Baltimore Sun photo by Barbara Haddock Taylor)

John D. Danko stops in mid-conversation to note the sound ringing through the house. The small brass bell chimes from behind the face of the grandfather clock in the foyer, perhaps the same sound people would have heard in their homes while waiting for word from the battlegrounds of the War of 1812.

"Back in those days, this is what they heard," says Danko, after the clock has chimed nine times on the hour. Then there's only the tick-tick-tick of the seconds as two weights and a pendulum wrought in cast iron keep the time using technology that dates to the days of the Battle of North Point and Fort McHenry's defense of Baltimore harbor.

Danko knows the clock inside and out: He built it himself, making it a commemoration of a moment in American and local history. The house in West Friendship is filled with reproductions of antique American furniture he's built over the years using tools at his workplace and in the garage-size workshop behind his house.

There's an eight-drawer writing table modeled on one Thomas Jefferson had at Monticello, a dining table, secretary, Chippendale shelves, a sideboard, a chair made with the seat at an angle to accommodate the sword that would hang from a gentleman's side.

The clock, though, has gained special status.

"It really is one of my favorite pieces," says Danko, president of Danko Arlington Inc., a foundry in Baltimore specializing in casting hardware used chiefly by the military.

Visitors walking through the front door of the house first see the clock, standing 8 feet 3 inches tall on the floor of polished European marble in a red hue. The mahogany cabinet has been brought to a fine finish with tung oil and beeswax. The painted steel face registers not only the hour, but the seconds, the day of the month and phases of the moon.

Danko, a 48-year-old father of three, is nothing if not focused on the fine details, as his business demands. He studied mechanical engineering at Lafayette College in Pennsylvania, then joined the business that his grandfather founded in 1920.

He's been making things since he was a boy growing up in Baltimore's Homeland neighborhood — "models, all sorts of little knickknacks in the basement" — but as an adult has taken up the pursuit of history embodied in wood and brass, glass and gold leaf. Focusing chiefly on the Federal era, which extends roughly from the ratification of the Constitution in 1789 to the early 19th century, he's found inspiration in books and visits to historical sites.

While looking through a book at the Enoch Pratt central library tailor-made for furniture aficionados like Danko — "Measured Drawings of Eighteenth Century American Furniture" by Ejner Handberg — he found schematic drawings of a grandfather clock with a distinctive pedigree. It was made by Aaron Willard, a renowned Boston clockmaker active in the late 18th and first half of the 19th centuries.

"I like the size and the proportions," he says. It was an ambitious project, requiring "a lot of skill and a lot of savvy," but, he says, "I thought it was something I could do."

This was the mid-1990s, when Danko was still single, with lots of time to stay late at the shop and use the precision tools there to make wooden patterns for metal casting. It took about eight months of nights and weekends for Danko to build the clock, bringing it to life using antique works he bought from a clockmaker's supply house.

But he didn't want it to be a Boston clock. He wanted a Baltimore clock. And as it was a clock originally built around 1800, he wanted it to be a clock that would mark a moment in Baltimore history of roughly that time: the War of 1812.

That meant customizing the steel clock face, which to honor tradition would usually be painted with a rural scene, a maritime scene and often a face of the moon. In this case, though, the land scene would be Fort McHenry and the maritime scene would be the Pride of Baltimore II, a reproduction of the topsail schooners that sailed out of Baltimore as privateers during the War of 1812.

Through the clockmaker supplier, Danko found a woman in Pennsylvania who specialized in painting clock faces. He sent her postcards of the Pride and an aerial view of Fort McHenry, and letters detailing his specifications.

"I wanted bombs bursting in air over the fort, but I didn't know if that would work out," he says.

That detail was not included, perhaps because the artist didn't think it would fit into the space on the dial that rotates with the passing hours. Otherwise, the job was finished in 1997, with Danko's name on the face and "Baltimore" below the name, as Willard would mark his creations with his name and the place where the clock was built.

"It's truly now a Baltimore clock, not a Boston clock," says Danko.

During Sailabration, the city's commemoration of the beginning of the War of 1812 in June, he and his family visited the Inner Harbor and the the Flag House & Star-Spangled Banner Museum on East Pratt Street. Sailabration is over and the tall ships have sailed on, but the Danko family commemoration continues — standing in the foyer and chiming on the hour.


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