In a building in the middle of the North Loop, Jim Fiorentino has amassed an incredible collection of objects that serves as a curious monument to his past. Hundreds of Old World cuckoo clocks, dozens of Edison phonographs, cases full of stones he’s carved into spheres. Is this the most idiosyncratic museum experience in the city?
Jim Fiorentino can trace all his regrets back to a single day: His older brother, who drove a horse and buggy for Selig Jaffa, got him a job selling fruit in downtown Minneapolis. “Five cents an hour, 15-hour day on a Saturday: 75 cents,” Fiorentino says. “And glad to get it, because it was the only way our family ate.” That was 1933, when Fiorentino was 10 years old. The Fiorentino brothers went on to open their own successful fruit store in 1939. After the war, he discovered his former employer was in the radio-controlled garage door business, and this time Jaffa hired the Fiorentino brothers for repairs and installation. He eventually started his own commercial garage door dealership. “It was the job I wish I never started,” he says about that fruit-selling gig 82 years ago. “Because it influenced my whole life. It was never my desire or my plan.”
Fiorentino is now 92 years old. If you see time in the mechanical way he does, you would believe that career choices—even when made at age 11—have long-term implications about what could have been. It’s hypothetically possible: the vector of his life dramatically changing the day his older brother got him that job. Eighty-two years is a long time for a butterfly effect to play out. But he never was able to fully turn his attention to doing what he loved: inventing new machines, like his hero Thomas Edison. Where Fiorentino sits today, nearly a century afterward, could well be an entirely different place if he never started selling fruit. And right now, he’s sitting in his dusty two-room apartment in the front of a former industrial warehouse in the North Loop, an apartment that serves double-duty as the lobby of the most unusual museum in Minneapolis: Fiorentino’s Cuckoo Clock Museum.
A solitary 92-year-old man with a massive clock collection tick, tick, ticking away—the symbolism would make Poe blush, but it’s ultimately superficial. Fiorentino’s cuckoo obsession runs deeper than a commentary on the scarcity of time. This is a story about an obsession with stuff. He started collecting cuckoos in the 1970s and now hangs more than 300 of them on the walls of his museum. Most are from the 19th century; a few are from the 1820s. Most are traditional Black Forest cuckoos: dark-stained linden wood, native to a particular area east of the Rhine in Germany. The carving is superb, with classic Teutonic motifs—stag heads and foxes and oak leaves and pinecones—gesturing toward an honest, masculine need to honor the wilderness through rough attempts at mimicry. This is straightforward, humble art in which farmers and hunters and fishermen found beauty. It’s handmade art, mass-produced by village artisans for common folk, as out of fashion as any duck stamp print is today. This is art that was never intended for the salon wall or the postmodern white gallery cube.
The woodwork itself conceals bellows and escapements and gears that compel a tiny wooden cuckoo to come out and whistle once or twice an hour. To Fiorentino, the clock’s mechanics are the least interesting part. He says he hasn’t wound many of them in 40 years—winding a weight-driven clock is a daily job that ensures regular noise, and he no longer sleeps well. He has terrible arthritis in his shoulder and knees. He doesn’t need a flock of cuckoos tormenting him throughout the day. The clockworks never thrilled him as much as the woodwork—and his own ability to restore and repair it.
He doesn’t seem all that interested in the historical origins of the clocks either. He’s never been to Germany. “Never been anywhere,” he says. All of these clocks were purchased within a 200-mile radius at estate sales and auctions around Minnesota. Some came from the Salvation Army on 10th Avenue North. “Haven’t gone farther than Marshalltown, Iowa, for a clock,” he says with something that sounds like pride.
“Fiorentino” isn’t German, of course; it’s an Italian name. His father came over on a boat from the tiny town of Settingiano in the arc of Calabria. (His mother is from Naples.) His father earned his living as a steamfitter, but he made it stretch by doing odd jobs and building furniture. “He could fix anything,” Fiorentino says. In the ’20s, the elder Fiorentino built radios from crystal sets so he could figure out how they worked (the younger Fiorentino built his first radio when he was 8, using parts from his dad’s old sets). Eventually, Fiorentino Sr. figured out how to repair clocks. In fact, the first cuckoo clock in Fiorentino’s collection—his Proustian madeleine of a cuckoo—was a clock that Jim Galgano, Fiorentino’s namesake uncle, had hanging in his grocery store on 35th and Cedar in south Minneapolis. Fiorentino’s dad would bring the clock home to repair whenever it needed it, but his last repair job went unfinished for 40 years. “Two of my brothers were at the family house living as bachelors,” he remembers. “They were cleaning the basement, and the cuckoo clock was sitting on a pile of rubbish.” Fiorentino told his brothers he was taking the clock home to repair it. “Nobody’s going to repair it,” one of them said. Fiorentino said he would. “Done a real professional job on it too,” he says. “Hung it on the wall and the neighbors would come to see it and go half out of their gourds.”
Eventually, his father’s repair work evolved from craftsmanship to pursuit of a true artistic impulse. “In later years he started digging up old [tree] roots and turning them into table lamps,” he says. There’s an entire room in Fiorentino’s museum dedicated to his father’s art. These later works are true outsider art: twisted golems and demons and serpents with little mustaches and hooves carved out of the knotty roots. There is an anxious and playful imagination at work in them.
In 1965, Fiorentino started crafting his own strange objects. He became obsessed with shaving down rocks into spheres and joined a local lapidary club. “I liked designing and building operating machines for making the spheres,” he says. “I made a core-drilling machine for converted cylinders into round, polished balls.” He built a three-cup sphere-making machine and an 18-inch diamond saw. The spheres look like miniature planets, and now he has enough of them for an entire pocket universe: pink quartz globes and blue rhodonite moons. They’re all behind glass in one of the dozens of cases in his museum.
The cuckoo clocks are only part of Fiorentino’s massive collection. Along with the room dedicated to his father’s work, he’s constructed a warren of other galleries: one full of vintage Edison cylinder phonographs, another with a pair of jukeboxes, and in the middle of one of the cuckoo clock galleries, there are various pipe organs. Throughout, there are cases and cases of all the things that Fiorentino has amassed during his 92 years on the planet: salt carvings, radios, pocket knives. As you walk through the galleries, you begin to feel the homemade nature of the place—written in a female hand on yellow Post-it Notes explaining that these are Lake Superior agates, that this is “opalized wood,” that these are vintage electronic toys, that these spheres were “made by Jim” on “machines made by Jim.”
A visit is unlike any other museum experience, starting with the exterior of the building: a faded tan door on the corner of First Street North and Second Avenue North with a sign above advertising “RAYNOR.” The building sits in the middle of the North Loop’s trendiest shopping sector. Like many of the surrounding buildings, it was originally a warehouse in 1948, built to store aluminum from the foundry across the street, but it ended up holding huge coils of army surplus wire that the Cord-Sets company used to build extension cords (the company still exists, now on 10th Avenue North).
In 1990, after more than 30 years of selling garage doors, Fiorentino decided to sell the business to his nephews. A couple of years later, his beloved wife, Winnie, passed away. “I had 117 clocks in my house,” he says. “She loved them. Anything I done, she was as involved as I was, but when she passed I had to do something different.” He planned to move his massive cuckoo clock collection into the warehouse. “I had hundreds of people who wanted to buy the place, but it was so embarrassing,” he says. “It wasn’t presentable for the average person, so I wanted to clean it up.” He installed walls and double-pane glass windows. He built stairs with gabled railings and chalet-style filigreed woodwork that echoes the cuckoo clock carvings. But to get to the galleries, you need to walk through his apartment—a living room with a television and a couch on one side, a kitchen with a fridge and range on the other.
Is this a museum worth visiting? It seems to pass art critic Dave Hickey’s test for a worthy exhibit: You can look at it for at least as long as it takes you to get there. Its objects—the cuckoo clocks, the spheres, the bizarre woodcarvings—are captivating in their own right. Walking by a man’s bedroom on the way into a museum inevitably colors your perception of what’s on display. In writer John Berger’s Ways of Seeing, a passage shows van Gogh’s painting Wheatfield with Crows, then Berger presents it again, this time with the caption beneath it: “This is the last picture that van Gogh painted before he killed himself.” Berger’s interested in how the information on the placard changes the viewer’s perception. In the same way, knowing about Fiorentino’s life alters the way you might otherwise perceive these galleries.
This is Fiorentino’s museum, and although the various artifacts are often fascinating or beautiful on their own, all together they work as a diorama summing up his achievements and his failures; he’s showing you the things he collected and restored and worked on over the course of a lifetime. There is a noticeable tension between public and private space in this place. While the museum is free of charge, he rarely publicizes it, and you get the sense that this is somewhat intentional. There aren’t any regular hours, and it’s by appointment only. But he’s also been known to sit out on the sidewalk on Saturday afternoons and literally pull strangers in from off the street. When you do get inside he’ll walk along with you, acting as both security guard and guide, talking about whatever is on his mind: how he’s been alone for decades, how he’s feeling. And if he’s feeling shitty or sore that afternoon, he’ll let you know. He’ll tell you that he’s estranged from his only child, that his daughter hasn’t been to the museum in seven years. He says he needs help, somebody to take him to the grocery store, that with his arthritis, it takes him longer to get going in the morning. (Once, when I tell him I’ll give him a call in the morning to see how he’s warming up before meeting him, he says, “What do you think I am, a reptile?”)
He’ll tell you it’s tough to make it to Mass anymore, so he’s been watching religious movies. He saw The Song of Bernadette on Turner Classic Movies the other night, about the Virgin Mary appearing before a woman in Lourdes. He says he hasn’t seen it since it was in the theater in the 1940s. He’ll talk about his own visions, the one he had during open heart surgery a few years back: seeing himself in a mountainous landscape, getting shot at by unknown gunmen across a stream. Or he’ll just reflect on the limits of his own ingenuity, the fact that he had ideas for prototypes of the VCR and the cell phone that for whatever reason never really came together. “I have the imagination to take another guy’s item and redesign it and make it better,” he says. “I’ve had so many inventive ideas. Stuff I’d wake up in the middle of the night and say, How does it happen that this isn’t being built by anybody? It’s a revolutionary thing in my own mind and then I think about it and it goes away. Crazy. That’s where my regrets are.”
After a while you get the sense that this museum is just as much about the things that he didn’t get to as the ones he did. He thinks about the end now, about finally running out of time. He has a trustee organization in place, with artists and a cuckoo clock expert, who will hopefully keep this museum open beyond the limit of his own life. He is proud that he’s never charged admission or accepted a donation, and he plans to keep it that way. But that also may be what has entitled him to tell his own story. “It’s for my own satisfaction,” he says about his collection. “I buy oddball stuff that I like, and for some people, it probably don’t make one bit of sense, but for some people, some stuff I buy is rare.”
There’s something fiercely poignant about Fiorentino’s museum, but something lonely about it too. In this era when everyone is telling their own stories digitally—when we all have the ability, through selfies and geotagging and status updates, to instantly share first-person accounts of our own lives—here is someone who has been doing it for much longer than we have, in a driven and hyperlocal way. Fiorentino built something that’s very human, but the scale that he’s working on is nothing short of heroic: a personal museum that is both ordinary and extraordinary.