Episode posted January 17, 2021
Title: Gothic Revival Water Towers
This is Cream City~Windy City. I’m Wendy Bright.
Every episode, we explore thought-provoking connections between Milwaukee and Chicago, two cities 90-miles apart on the shores of Lake Michigan. This podcast is an effort to lay out some of these links, to connect the histories and human stories of both cities.
Today we explore the stories of the two cities’ water towers, two iconic structures that have much more in common than their original function.
Ellis Sylvester Chesbrough was a 19th-century, self-trained engineer who made his name designing a municipal water system for Boston. Soon after he would come to the rescue of both Chicago and Milwaukee.
Chicago by the 1850s had some serious problems with its water supply and sewage disposal. Chesbrough was called upon to design the country’s first comprehensive sewer system. His plan was based on gravity, but Chicago’s utter flatness prevented gravity from doing its job. The decision was made to physically raise the city up in order to use gravity and to locate the new brick sewers beneath – a tremendous feat that took many years. But sewage still flowed into the city’s drinking water source – Lake Michigan. In 1864, Chesbrough oversaw the three-year-long construction of a two-mile-long tunnel, 60 feet deep in the lake, out to Chicago’s first intake crib, where the water was presumed free of pollutants. A pumping station was built near the shore at Chicago Avenue to bring lake water into the city. But the pumps produced pressure surges, so a standpipe system was devised to maintain stability. The 138-foot standpipe just west of the pumping station would be encased in stone – to cover the unsightly pipe and to insulate against freezing. The cornerstone of the new tower was laid in 1867 and by 1869 Chicago’s Waterworks was complete.
At this same time, Milwaukee hired Ellis Chesbrough, as well. The city from its earliest settlement had been relying on natural springs, wells, and cisterns to supply its citizens with water but by the 1860s that was woefully insufficient. Chesbrough designed Milwaukee’s first public waterworks. As he did in Chicago, he devised a long intake pipe – in this case, 2,000 feet long – to reach out into Lake Michigan. On the lakefront, a Cream City Brick pumping station was built to bring the lake water in. Through a cast iron main, the water was sent up the bluff and west one mile to a new reservoir built on high ground. Milwaukee had the same issue with its pumps producing the strong pulsations that could harm the water mains, so the system soon included a standpipe. Milwaukee’s standpipe, built at the top of the bluff, would also be covered in stone. The entire system at North Point on the lakefront was operational by 1874.
The sites chosen for both cities’ waterworks were similar: both at the lakefront, both a bit distant from downtown and both situated in park-like settings. Chicago’s water tower is on bustling Michigan Avenue today, but in the 19th century, this was quiet, residential Pine Street. Milwaukee’s water tower was dramatically sited on a bluff at North Avenue overlooking Lake Michigan.
To design the stone casing for its standpipe, Chicago chose prominent and prolific architect, William W. Boyington. He was known for his 1858 Joliet Penitentiary and the 1864 Soldier’s Home in Chicago. He would go on to design the old Chicago Board of Trade building and the Illinois State Building for the 1893 World’s Fair. In the mid-1860s, Boyington was commissioned not only to create the new pumping station, but to design Chicago’s water tower and to make it a thing of uncommon beauty. Boyington had been paying attention to architectural thought and practice across the Atlantic Ocean, thus he chose to work in the style particularly popular there at the time: the Gothic Revival.
The revival of Gothic architecture took hold in eighteenth-century England, but its popularity surged by the 1830s. The movement asserted that architecture authentically designed in the medieval Gothic style would facilitate a return to a morally virtuous society. Leading English art critic John Ruskin agreed that the Gothic was natural, fluid, authentic, and it created a bond between materials, the craftsman, and God. The Gothic style was applied to all types of nineteenth-century buildings and adapted for new building types that had emerged such as train stations … and water towers. Gothic design first emerged in America in the 1830s particularly in residential architecture but soon spread to all types of buildings in the States. The popularity of Gothic Revival faded after the 1870s but did remain popular in church design well into the 20th century.
You can see Gothic Revival churches in every Chicago and Milwaukee neighborhood. In Chicago there are also the Gothic designs of the University of Chicago and Tribune Tower. In Milwaukee you will find Gothic Revival in the design of the National Soldier’s Home and the original Pabst Brewery buildings.
In the early 1870s Milwaukee chose architect Charles A. Gombert to design its water tower. Gombert was known for his grand residential work for the city’s elite. For the water tower he would also employ the Gothic Revival style.
Chicago and Milwaukee’s water towers stand out among American water towers. Other cities in the 19th century also opted for ornamental water tower design. Louisville has the oldest in the country, designed in Neoclassical style, like a giant column. Madison’s long-gone 1889 water tower, which was on East Washington Avenue, looked slightly Gothic, although very straight and simple. Weehawken, New Jersey’s blocky, brick water tower resembles the Palazzo Vecchio in Florence. Only the Chicago and Milwaukee ornamental water towers were designed so elegantly.
William Boyington’s Chicago Water Tower resembles a miniature medieval castle with its turrets and castellated parapets. A castellated building is given the appearance of a castle by the inclusion of towers and battlements, which are walls with regular spaces at the top. Its exterior is composed of the fine local, yellow Joliet-Lemont limestone, finished with a rough texture. The tower’s pronounced verticality, its many components seemingly pointing upwards, is a distinguishing characteristic of the Gothic style. The structure rises in five sections from the square base with battlement pillars at each of its four corners. Each of the 40-foot-wide facades is identical with a stately doorway and two grand windows each. The second and third sections are similar and diminish in size. The octagonal tower is set back from the top of the third section and rises 154 feet from ground level. The tower’s copper-clad cupola once housed the main control station and a sleeping room for the watchman. But after 1911, it became a small observation deck popular with tourists.
Gombert’s castle-like Milwaukee North Point Tower is Gothic Revival, as well, without the castellated details. Sheathed in local, Wauwatosa Niagara limestone, it rises 175 feet. Its stone surface has a rough texture, but its limestone trim is smooth. The base is 24-feet square with buttresses at each corner, steeply pitched gables, one pointed-arched entrance, and multiple arched windows. The slightly tapering shaft is punctured by small, narrow windows and capped by an elaborate observation platform spire of gables and finials covered in galvanized iron.
Unfortunately, neither of the observation decks are open to the public any longer.
After a century and a half of life each, both water towers have a few stories to tell.
Milwaukee’s North Point Water Tower has led a relatively quiet life. It has been widely admired for its beauty, being praised as “unusually handsome,” “fanciful and charming.” It has been hailed as one of the country’s finest surviving nineteenth-century water towers. It was designated a state and local landmark and is on the National Register of Historic Places. Nearby residents have long been devoted to preserving and protecting this pride of the neighborhood. In the 1960s one neighbor donated the fountain in the adjacent park, while another suggested to the city that the tower be illuminated at night and as of 1965, it has been. Perhaps the most dramatic event was when in 1985 a local artist installed a dragon on the tower. The gold and green dragon was 30-feet long and weighed 350-pounds and received much press. It was on display for only one week, but locals still fondly remember it.
The North Point Water Tower was in use until 1963, when it was disconnected from the city’s water infrastructure. Milwaukee had switched from steam to electric pumps and there was no longer a need for a standpipe to even out the pressure. The tower has undergone several restorations since then.
The Chicago Water Tower has led a dramatic life. First of all, its appearance has not always enjoyed high regard. Oscar Wilde on a visit to Chicago in 1882 famously called it a “castellated monstrosity with pepper boxes stuck all over it” and that “one expects to see mailed knights peering out.” At the turn of the 20th century, residents of nearby mansions also considered it an eyesore and unsuccessfully campaigned to have it torn down. As recently as the 1960s some publicly labeled it decidedly unlovely and quaint.
The most momentous of all events, of course, was the Great Chicago Fire of October 1871. Seemingly against all odds, the Water Tower survived the massively destructive fire with minimal damage. The pumping station also survived but had more extensive damage, having lost its entire roof. But the Fire would not be the only threat to the Water Tower’s survival.
At least three times during the 20th century, there were serious calls to tear down the Water Tower. The first came in 1911 after the standpipe had been removed and the tower’s function became obsolete. Some said it was no longer useful and a waste of money to maintain. But its defenders won by emphasizing its value as a symbol of Chicago’s resilience. The tower’s location in a burgeoning area of downtown Chicago became a problem. First in 1918 as plans were made to extend Michigan Avenue north of the river, the Water Tower was directly in the path of the new thoroughfare. The proposal to raze the tower was met with passionate protests. The new Michigan Avenue was routed around the tower. And again in 1948 as the post-World War II transformation of Michigan Avenue was about to begin, this relic of the past was standing in the way of progress. But the voices calling for its destruction were drowned out by those calling for its preservation. By the 1960s, the Water Tower’s fate was assured. It was fully restored and its 100th birthday was enthusiastically celebrated. In the 1970s it was designated a Chicago Landmark and both the Water Tower and Pumping Station were listed on the National Register of Historic Places – and listed as the “Old Chicago Water Tower District.” Its interior would soon be converted for use as a City of Chicago art gallery space.
Neither water tower is in use for its original purpose, but they are both protected and well-loved. They both stand proudly like exclamation points, stone symbols of the history and aspirations of both cities.
Chicago’s Historic Water Tower has become an iconic monument, a familiar landmark to all who live in or visit the city. Standing idiosyncratically amidst skyscrapers that dwarf it, the stalwart little stone tower that survived the city’s greatest disaster has become the ultimate symbol of Chicago’s indomitable spirit.
Milwaukee’s North Point Water Tower has likewise stood as a beloved city symbol. It is a striking part of the lakefront skyline and an East Side landmark. It remains the most visually prominent part of the original waterworks system.
Both Chicago and Milwaukee’s water towers are celebrations of American ingenuity, the abundance of Great Lakes water, of beauty, and of survival. And Boyington’s Chicago Water Tower and Gombert’s North Point Water Tower remain both architects’ most famous and beloved works.
Thanks so much for joining me. I welcome your comments, questions, and suggestions. You can leave them at the blog post for this episode, where I’ve got many great photos of the water towers. WendyCityChicago.com
If you would like to know more about the title of this podcast, take a listen to Episode 1.
Many thanks to my son, Zack Goehner, for his brilliant graphic design work.
Intro music: “Chicago Blues” by the Kenny Dorham Quintet.
Outro music, “I Lost My Baby In Milwaukee” by KEdKE.
See you next time.