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December 1991

Historic Watertowers

by Katherine Thomas

Minneapolis is the only city in the United States with three of its very own unused stone water towers. The area’s natural artesian wells allow the Minneapolis water supply system to service the bulk of the city by gravitational force. However, at the turn of the century, the high level of elevation in three developing districts left them unserviceable by the city’s natural water system. Thus the city constructed three watertowers: Kenwood, Prospect Park and Washburn. All but the Washburn tower were taken completely out of service in 1954 with the construction of the clear water basin in Columbia Heights. The elevation of the new basin was high enough to gravitationally service even these formerly troublesome areas. Only the Washburn tower is still used in the summer months when the water levels are at their lowest.

The Kenwood tower is located on Kenwood Parkway at Oliver Ave. S. The tower is sandwiched between two houses and overlooks a sloping park area. The neighboring trees have slowly reduced the tower’s visibility, so it must be looked for to be seen.

Of the three towers in Minneapolis, least is known about this one. The architect is unknown, as is the exact year of the tower’s construction. Most sources cite 1910 as the year, however, others cite 1912 or 1914. All that is definite is that the tank was constructed by Chicago Bridge and Iron Works.

The 110' octagonal tower is built of red brick with thick buttresses at each corner. The projecting ribs, narrow rectangular fenestration and romanesque battlement are reminiscent of a medieval fortress—a familiar design theme at the time of construction. The original stone rail at the top was removed in 1934 and replaced with a pipe. No reason for this could be found.

In 1979, two local residents nearly converted the unused tower into condominiums. I saw pictures. It would have been nifty. There was quite a bit of local support from neighbors who daily watched the tower decay. They wanted to make use of this intriguing, not to mention sturdy, structure. But the proposal had to be scrapped because of a bureaucratic ping-pong game played by the city council and the historical society. The tower was designated a city landmark months after this incident.

The tower has not been in use since 1954 and now houses civil defense equipment and 2-way radio communications equipment, which is used by various city offices.

The Prospect Park tower, also known as the Witches Hat, can be seen for miles in all directions. The tower’s romanesque arched belvedere has been described as "wide open eyes, surveying its domain." Built in 1914 by F.W. Cappelan, City Engineer, the tower was the focal point around which the Prospect Park neighborhood was developed. It was originally constructed as both a water tower and a bandstand, but only one band ever mounted its winding stairs. Legend has it that by the time the band reach the top, they were too exhausted to play.

The tower remains locked all year, except for one day in the summer when the neighborhood residents gather around the base of the tower for a community picnic. At this time, strong-hearted individuals are allowed to climb to the top and see the view of both Minneapolis and St. Paul as the tower sees it.

In 1955, structural damage caused by a lightning bolt nearly caused the tower’s demolition. The tower had been taken out of service the year before and the lightning bolt had caused severe structural damage. The tower was scheduled for demolition and the equipment was at the scene. However, adamant local residents and a sympathetic city alderman were able to convince the city council to halt demolition and instead to renovate the tower. It was renovated again in 1986 and, according to the official city report, should be solid for another 100 years. The tower presently houses 2-way radio communications equipment used by various city offices.

The Washburn tower is located in Tangletown, near 50th St. and Lyndale. Of the three towers, this is the most famous. It was designed by Harry Wild Jones, a famous local architect (Butler Square and Lakewood Cemetery Chapel), with William S. Hewitt as engineer (Ford Bridge, reënforced concrete method). It is on the national historic register and it has 12 of its very own sculptures designed and executed by John K. Daniels. The 16' tall "guardian of health" statues are supposed to guard the water from the bad-smelling and bad-tasting water pollutants which were blamed for the occasional outbreaks of typhoid fever at the time. The eagles are symbolic of the tower’s history as well. Apparently, before construction of Jones’ nearby home, while the underbrush on the site was being cleared away, he was attacked by a huge eagle. It was maimed, captured and brought into town where it attracted great attention. Its wings measured 8' across, as do the wings of the water tower’s eagles. These eagles now watch over their former territory.

Since its construction in 1932, the grand architecture and massive form of the Washburn tower have provided a scene of medieval splendor in South Minneapolis as well as a certain mystique about the immediate neighborhood.

The tower also houses 2-way radio communications equipment used by various city offices. On top of all this, it actually serves its original purpose in the months from May to October, supplying the residents with water as well as atmosphere.

The other two towers cannot claim this distinction, however, in July of 1980, all three towers were designated as city landmarks. Thus, before any change can be made to the exterior appearance or function of any of these towers, the proposal would have to be reviewed and approved by the Heritage Preservation Commission and would also be subject to public hearing. All three towers exemplify the architectural historicism so prevalent in the 19th and early 20th centuries. The harkening back to the medieval image is characteristic of a period that felt it had no specific architectural style of its own and viewed the past through nostalgic eyes.

With continued public interest, the towers should remain intact and at least minimally maintained for years to come. For the minute expenditure their upkeep requires, they lend considerable atmosphere and mystery to the Minneapolis landscape. For more information about the Minneapolis water towers, consult the Minnesota Historical Society or the Minneapolis Public Library.


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Copyright 2012 Matt Bergstrom. Text Copyright Katherine Thomas