Perlman: Reviving the chimes in Station Square

By Michael Perlman

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History will be made in Station Square beginning on August 1, as Forest Hills Gardens residents and visitors will hear chimes from the tri-clock tower on the hour at 3 p.m. with three chimes, and 6 p.m. with six chimes, complementing traditions in European villages and cities, as well as in Colonial towns.

This will mark the rebirth of a tradition that began decades ago, but is long-forgotten by most, and unknown by newcomers.

Forest Hills will once again be on the map, reminiscent of the charm and grandeur of London’s Big Ben, Spasskaya Tower of the Kremlin, and St. Mark’s Basilica in Venice.        

In recent years, the iconic Forest Hills Inn underwent weatherproofing and roof restoration work.

Then in 2018, Station Square underwent a large-scale restoration initiative encompassing its utilities and the historic brick roadway, situated in a signature Union Jack pattern, as well as a median reconfiguration, transforming it closer to its roots.

In the recently enhanced regal wood-paneled Forest Hills Inn lobby, with period furniture, a fireplace, and “Pub Room” in gold leaf stenciled in the background, this columnist spoke with Aaron Bitic, project manager and founder of home improvement firm Das365 Inc, as well as George Hoban, board president of Station Square Inn Apartments.

At 33, Bitic, who is a shareholder of the Forest Hills Inn, emphasized his pride in being born and raised in Forest Hills.

He said, “I admire the Tudor and Arts & Crafts style, and there is no other town in New York that looks like this. I feel very fortunate and honored.” The neighborhood’s ambiance motivated him to initiate the chimes in Station Square.

Hoban explained “Through Aaron’s company, he can provide technical skills and advice to complex applications that can be done electronically or through a computer. He is very kind to be able to donate his services.”

Bitic continued, “I donated the equipment for the sound and a computer for its programming.” In mid-May, Bitic approached Hoban, who recalled, “He said that he would like to explore this at no cost, and I said, ‘Great. It would be consistent with the aesthetics of our neighborhood.’”

Chimes restoration expert Aaron Bitic behind a clock in the tower.

Precisely when and why residents stopped hearing the chimes is a mystery.

Two years ago, Bitic’s vision of restoring the clock tower and the chimes originated.

“I learned that it used to chime, but some of the crucial parts went missing,” he said.

Hoban made his home at the Inn in 1997.

He reminisced, “The chimes were working then. They would go off from 9 a.m. to 9 p.m. and ring on the hour. Many times, they were very helpful, since I would be getting ready for work. There was a beauty to it, whether it is European or the sound of a quiet Sunday in the city, mid-day. I feel as if I’m in an old German town somewhere in Europe on a snowy night or day.”

George Hoban & Aaron Bitic near the clock tower.

Beginning in 1912, when guests and prospective residents picked up a copy of “Forest Hills Inn,” an early 20th century illustrated pamphlet by philanthropic organization Russell Sage Foundation’s subsidiary, Sage Foundation Homes Company, they learned about Forest Hills Gardens’ benefits of location, education, and business, as evident by the planning of parks and open spaces alongside homes embodying architectural treatment.

It read, “Grouped around the arcade, through whose arches may be seen the Common, the groves, and the homes of Forest Hills Gardens, are attractive stores and shops that supply every normal want. In the center of the Square, the play of a fountain adds to the vivacity and charm of the scene. The architecture and plan of Station Square have been designed to provide an attractive spot for the common use and pleasure of residents. Beauty, harmony, and utility are here combined in a unique way.”

Inspired by Sir Ebenezer Howard’s Garden City Movement, this model residential development was designed by principal architect Grosvenor Atterbury and landscape architect Frederick Law Olmsted, Jr.

Station Square accommodated a classy social life, particularly at the spire-adorned Forest Hills Inn, which opened on May 1, 1912 and offered 150 rooms, adjoining the Raleigh apartments on the east and the Marlboro apartments on the west.

The LIRR Station, accessible from the Inn through arcades and bridges sheltering residents and visitors from the weather, enabled a 13-minute commute to Manhattan.

Historic events transpired, including annual Fourth of July celebrations, such as Col. Theodore Roosevelt’s “100 Percent American” speech on July 4, 1917 at Forest Hills Station.

In 1968, the inn was converted into a residence.

Bitic is an all-around hands-on man of determination, who recognizes the value behind restoration, volunteering, and a cleaner and more appealing environment.

Among his diverse projects included cleaning the velvet chairs in Radio City.

Das365 Inc. is Green Seal certified and offers cleaning specialty services consisting of brush vacuum shampoo drying, steam cleaning, carpet and upholstery, mattress deep cleaning, drapery fabric leather, wood floor cleaning and conditioning, and stone tile cleaning and sealing.

Bitic explained the chimes’ restoration process, which spanned a month and required an estimated 45 hours of work. “Since crucial parts were missing, the challenge was trying to find what may be the original sound (which Hoban recalled as Westminster). I am able to edit and extract tones from mp3 sound files and repeat them every 4 to 5 seconds, and produce new sound files. We were also missing a computer. The receiver was old and didn’t work well. It was from Radio Shack. When I turned it on, it didn’t have enough power, so I donated my own receiver, offering high definition sound. I was proud to also donate my know-how.”

Residents can now anticipate the chimes to go off to the second, based on an algorithm that he programmed.

One may wonder about the associated restoration costs for other projects.

Bitic explained, “If there is an original sound system, but the receiver doesn’t operate or the computer needs to be revamped or updated, it could be $8,000. If there is a clock tower with no system or speaker and they wanted it to be installed, it would cost $10,000 to $25,000.”

This is Bitic’s first project of its kind.

“If I had another opportunity to restore a clock tower with chimes, I can do it,” he said.

Hoban commended Bitic as “an example of the residents who are very proud of this building,” and said, “I’ve lived here for 25 years, and I have never walked out that door and not been impacted by the beauty of Station Square. Anything that we can do, within reason, to enhance that, we will jump all over.”

Bitic continued, “Volunteering is crucial to spread positivity in a mysterious world of negativity and positivity. Maybe you can change someone’s mind and heart from negative to the neutral and positive sides, and maybe they can contribute to something in their lives, as in a ripple effect.”

Hoban began dissecting the word “cooperative,” as per his role on the board. “My board members volunteer their own time, as well as plenty of other residents.”     

This project is also an example of how it is significant to preserve and restore America’s clocks and its chimes. It also makes one wonder how many clock towers are analog with a bell and how many consist of a sound system with speakers.

Clocks restoration team, Sept. 1992

Bitic explained, “I feel it’s very important to bring back history to the present time, since someone else will do that in the future. Otherwise, it will be forgotten.”

The visit to the Forest Hills Inn continued with a walk up a winding staircase into the clock tower for a demonstration and a few test runs, but within days, the public will experience the Real McCoy of the chimes, as the clocks keep on ticking in the name of a timeless garden community.

For more information about the services Bitic offers at Das365 Inc, please visit their website: www.das365inc.com

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