The great D.H. Holmes clock caper of 1989
In 1989, D.H. Holmes Department Stores — including its Canal Street location, a New Orleans institution since 1849 — was sold to the Arkansas-based Dillard’s. Local residents knew exactly what that meant: yet another entry on the eternally growing list of beloved New Orleans icons that “ain’t there no more.” That’s when dyed-in-the-wool New Orleanians Tony Rihner and Frank Tripoli decided to do what they could to save a piece of local history. At 10 p.m. on May 17, 1989 — a Wednesday — they drove to Holmes’ Canal Street store with a ladder. Forty-five minutes later, they drove away. In the trunk of their car was the revered D.H. Holmes clock, a local landmark that had been used as a meeting place by locals for decades.
The clock is back where it belongs. For nearly six years, Rhiner and Tripoli held onto it, “for safe keeping.” In 1995, they handed it over to the Chateau Sonesta Hotel, which took up residence in the renovated Holmes building (and which is now a Hyatt). For two more years it was on display in the hotel’s Clock Bar. Finally, in October 1997, it was reinstalled in its perch on Canal Street.
- The Holmes clock isn’t just a local sentimental landmark. It’s a literary landmark, earning a mention on the opening page of John Kennedy Toole’s Pulitzer-winning “A Confederacy of Dunces,” with main character Ignatius J. Reilly waiting under it for his mother.
- Legally speaking, Rihner and Tripoli were committing theft. But they didn’t see themselves as thieves. They saw themselves as preservationists. In a 2002 interview with The Times-Picayune, Rihner remembered saying to Tripoli: “‘If Dillard’s gets it, the clock is going to vanish. In my veins I can feel it. Frank, we’re going to get it tonight.'”
One not-so-minor detail they didn’t count on: There was still electricity running to the clock when they tried to disconnect it. “Tony’s on the fifth step of the ladder. I’m holding his ankles, and he’s holding a pair of wire cutters,” Tripoli said. “I’m saying, ‘Hurry up, Tony. Hurry up, Tony.’ But when he tries to cut the wire, it’s live and he gets shocked and I’m yelling, ‘Look out, look out, ya bastid!’ “
- Yes, they had been drinking.
- While they were working on the clock, who should walk by but Sally Reeves, who was in charge of the city’s notarial archives — and who is the daughter-in-law of a former Holmes president. Rhiner and Tripoli, wearing matching khakis and polo shirts, tried to convince her they worked for Dillard’s. She called their bluff, and they admitted their scheme. She copied their contact information to ensure the clock would eventually find its way home.
- When they returned the clock, its hands were frozen in place at 10:44 (and 26 seconds) — marking the exact moment they made off with it.
- As with so many New Orleanians, the closing of Holmes was personal for Rhiner. As a young man, he used to work at the department store. Tripoli used to work across the street at Walgreen’s.
- It wasn’t the only time the clock came down. With the approach of Hurricane Katrina in 2005, the Chateau Sonesta Hotel temporarily removed it and a statue of Ignatius J. Reilly — installed in 1997 at the same time the clock had been returned — in an abundance of caution. They were both re-installed less than two months later.
New Orleans is a city of countless stories. Few of them, however, capture the local ethos as much as this one does. It involves Canal Street. It involves a beloved local icon. It involves two sentimental Yats determined to rescue said icon from the “ain’t-there-no-more” heap. And it involves a comical late-night heist that feels as if it itself could have been pulled from the pages of “A Confederacy of Dunces.” (And the cherry on top of this narrative nectar soda? Those uninsulated wire-cutters.) The best part is that it all has a happy ending, with the preservation of a New Orleans landmark.