The floral clock on the grounds of the Kentucky State Capitol is 50 years old. A golden anniversary celebration at the clock today attracted more than 200 people, including Kentucky Public Radio’s Tony McVeigh.
In the fall of 1960, Kentucky Gov. Bert Combs visited Niagara Falls. While there, he fell in love with the giant floral clock on the Canadian side of the border. The clock, dedicated in 1950, was patterned after a similar clock built in Edinburgh, Scotland, in 1903. Combs decided his State Capitol needed a floral clock, too.
“He wanted people to come to Frankfort," said Lois Weinberg, Gov. Combs’ daughter. “He thought that we had a lovely capitol, and that they should be more aware of what went on there. I think it was Kentuckians he wanted to come there, not necessarily tourists from out of the state. He was trying to get the people of Kentucky to visit, and be proud and interested in their State Capitol."
So, the governor dispatched Ken Dotson, who was the capitol’s landscape gardener, to Niagara Falls.
“He told me, he says, ‘I saw one of those clocks!’ And he says, ‘You go get on a plane and go over there, and see it, and come back and we’re going to build it!’ That’s how it was,” said Dotson. “He just had a vision of what he wanted, and I implemented it.”
The governor took some ribbing for his vision, with critics dubbing the proposed clock ‘Combs’ Folly.’ Even his chief of staff, Fontaine Banks, tried to talk him out of the project.
“I even hid the plans for the clock, but he knew where to find them,” said Banks. “The most feared day happened. I was standing in front of his desk. Gov. Combs was looking out his window. Normally, this was the stage for me getting chewed out. But he turned around and said, ‘I want to build my damned clock!’”
Designed by Frankfort architect William Livingston, Jr., the clock was built in 1961, at a cost to taxpayers of $50,000. The Garden Club of Kentucky raised money for the inaugural planting and clock maintenance. But the jokes kept coming.
“Happy Chandler once said, ‘They don’t say half-past two anymore in Frankfort. They say it’s two petunias past the gypsum weed!’”
Despite the mockery, David Buchta of Historic Properties says the clock quickly became popular among tourists and an important part of Kentucky’s history.
For its 50th anniversary, the clock’s huge hour and minute hands have been painted gold.
“The hands weigh 530 pounds, and 420 pounds that are made of cast aluminum,” said Buchta. “The minutes are measured in foot and a half increments. There is a 34 foot diameter of the clock face. The planter weighs 200,000 pounds. The weight of each of the Kentucky letters is 200 pounds.”
And the elevated clock, which sits atop a native Kentucky fieldstone base, is tilted at a 26-degree angle. Its floral designs change with the seasons, and during the holidays, it’s usually festooned with lights.
Several plaques around its base welcome visitors, honor Gov. Combs and outline the clock’s history. First lady Jane Beshear, who also helped rededicate the nearby rose garden started by Gov. Combs, says the floral clock has become much more than just a tourist attraction.
“There are wedding parties. There are prom pictures. There are so many different activities that take place that are important to people’s lives that happen right here,” said Mrs. Beshear. “Goodness, think about the number of coins that have been tossed in here and the number of wishes that have been made.”
Those coins, collected from the pool beneath the clock, fund scholarships for students studying horticulture and other agriculture-related fields at Kentucky colleges and universities. And nobody calls the clock ‘Combs’ Folly’ anymore.