On my way to the workshop, I pass a haunted house. It's not October, not even close, so I'm pretty surprised to see scarecrows and plastic skeletons and—is that a hearse? Yes it is. It takes all my strength not to pull into the parking lot for a little off-season ghoulish kitsch, but I'm already late. Brittany Cox is waiting.
Brittany is an antiquarian horologist. That means she knows about old clocks, but also tiny golden ships and silver swans and mechanical objects of all kinds. She seems like the kind of person who might appreciate a good (or even a bad) haunted house. Has she been? She has not. "I spend all of my time in this workshop," she tells me. "This workshop is my life right now."
From the outside, the workshop looks like nothing—a dirty old rectangular building with a faded sign, windows papered over, grass growing in patches outside. When you walk in, though, it’s a whole other universe.
It’s a mechanical wonderland. There are wheels and gears and knobs and cogs and meters and gauges on every surface. The walls are a color I mistakenly call sea foam green. "Bulova green," Brittany corrects me. Years ago, Bulova had a watch-making factory in New York where everything was painted this shade. When the factory closed, she explains, Dennis took the paint and used it to paint his own little factory.
See, this isn't Brittany's workshop, not really. It belonged to a man named Dennis Harmon, one of the finest horologists around. He repaired clocks and watches for clients all over the world. “He was famous," Brittany says, beaming. "Well, famous in limited circles. People that needed to know Dennis were the people that knew Dennis."
Then he died, leaving behind two daughters, two granddaughters, and this building in Connecticut crammed floor-to-ceiling with his stuff. Brittany was hired to sort through the stuff. She's been sorting, with help from her friend Reg (Reginald Lee Gomez, but always called Reg), for about 6 months now.
There's so much here that it's hard to get my eyes to focus. There are microscopes and magnifiers and bottles and beakers. There’s a rose engine, which looks like it could power a small car but which is actually used to cut delicate, flower-like designs. There are jars of saffron. Why saffron? "Likely for gilding," says Brittany. "In medieval times, sometimes you used saffron for getting the color of the gold just right."
And that's the crux of it. This place isn't just full of items, it's full of times. If a broken watch from the 1940's arrived at the workshop, Dennis fixed it using 1940's methods. That meant having 1940's equipment. Same for 1930, 1920, 1910. He spent a lifetime collecting it all.
The objects are, without exception, beautiful. It’s strange, because this is all behind-the-scenes stuff—the tools for making fancy things, not the fancy things themselves. But they are crafted with obvious love, down to the tiniest detail.
I ask Brittany: "Is there anything in here that you’re attached to?" She doesn't hesitate: "Oh, everything!”
Then she pauses. "Just because it belonged to Dennis, and I feel like I have this strange relationship with this person I never met, and I’m sentimental about it even though I didn’t know him. And that’s absolutely the last thing I should be, given that I’m in charge of selling it all."
The Harmon Estate Sale starts on June 11th and goes until June 15th. And, OK, I'm of two minds about it. On the one hand, this sale is mouth-watering—it’s the coolest estate sale, the estate sale that estate sale lovers dream of, and you should go if you possibly can. You’ll never see anything quite like it again.
On the other hand, the whole situation is just kind of heart-rending. These things belong together. They belong to Dennis. I never met him, but I can picture him here. When Brittany first arrived, back in December, she found some of his projects half-finished. "There was a bird he was making," she tells me. "He had constructed the shell and wired together the inside to make the wings flap and the beak open." It was just waiting for him to come back.
After hours of wandering from object to object, turning cranks and peering between gears, I convince Brittany and Reg to dust off an old 8-track machine and pop in one of Dennis’ tapes. It plays wrong in a way I didn’t even know a thing could play wrong—both sides at once, like a messy analog mashup. I’ve got my recorder on, and I keep waiting for the right time to hit stop, but the music is hypnotic. Did Dennis listen to it like this? Was he planning to fix the 8-track, later, one of these days? We listen for a long time. By the end it’s too late to check out the haunted house down the street, but we don’t really need to visit a haunted house. We’re standing in one.
Photos courtesy of Olga Abramson and Brittany Cox.