For Kristin Jones, rock bottom arrived with a pile of noisemakers, a side of champagne, and the specter of tipsy lovers embracing with glee at a time of no particular significance.
“People were in front of it, chanting the New Year’s Eve countdown,” Ms. Jones said of Metronome, the 62-foot-wide, 15-digit clock that she created on the face of One Union Square South in 1999. “They were completely oblivious it was 40 minutes off.”
For more than a year now, one of New York City’s largest timepieces has marched to its own beat, spouting nonsensical readings — 40 minutes slow, an hour and 10 minutes fast, 7 hours and 26 minutes slow — to mystified passers-by.
On Monday, a team of LED technicians, dispatched from Clearwater, Fla., by Related Companies, the building’s owners, performed the super-size equivalent of winding a watch. The clock began displaying the accurate time in the early afternoon.
“It’s been agony,” Ms. Jones said of the wayward clock, visible along Park Avenue from as far as Grand Central Terminal. “I was at the Union Square farmers’ market the other day, and just wanted to look at my shoes.”
Erected in 1999 — with an accompanying smoke-spewing brick wall at its side — Metronome has long baffled those who lived or worked in the neighborhood, even when functioning properly. The digits are intended to display military time, forward and backward: the first seven numbers exhibit the time of day, in hours, minutes, seconds and fifths of a second; the last seven represent the time remaining in the day, using the same units. The middle digit, a collision of numbers overlaying one another from both directions, is a virtual blur to the naked eye.
As a Long Island teenager, Noah Langer, 24, was told the numbers represented the acres of rain forest destroyed annually. Sarah Venezia, who can see the building each morning on her way to work, always assumed they stood for daily carbon emissions. And for years, friends tried to convince Bianca Rutigliano, who tends bar near Union Square, that the clock was counting down the seconds remaining until the end of the world.
“No, it’s the number for pi,” offered Zack Foley, 32, staring at the first four digits, 0-4-0-7, hours before the clock was fixed. “Wait, why is it moving?”
Many who understood Metronome’s meaning from the outset noticed a shift a little over a year ago, when the clock appeared to assume a mind of its own. This change, Jessica DiDonato and her co-workers noticed, coincided with the series finale of the popular science-fiction drama “Lost.”
“My friends were like, ‘Does it mean something?’ ” Ms. DiDonato, 28, said of the inaccurate clock readings. “They thought it was a secret code to keep the plane from crashing on the show.”
With updated programming software in place — from its inception until its malfunction, the clock had retrieved an atomic time reading using a dial-up connection, according to Ms. Jones — the artists are optimistic that Metronome’s technical glitches are behind it. At long last, they hope, the founding message of the installation, as a reflection on the passage of time, will resonate with audiences once again.
Early returns are discouraging.
“I saw this in the papers in Sweden. It’s the national debt,” insisted Ann Magnusson, a tourist from Stockholm, resting on the steps of Union Square Park on Monday afternoon. “China owns the U.S., no?”