A Tale of Two Towers

Walk around the water tower, beneath the sheer concrete walls, the ornate castellations, and the red tile cupola, and you will find a period plaque commemorating the tower's construction. Listed there are St. Paul's water commissioner, the engineers involved in the project, and the name of an architect. You will not find the name of the man who designed the edifice. This person, Clarence W. Wigington, was a draftsman in the city architect's office from 1915 to 1949. He was also the country's first black municipal architect. Though he designed scores of buildings in and around St. Paul--including more Winter Carnival Ice Palaces than any other architect in the city's history--he had until recently received almost no recognition for his work. There's fine irony in the fact that so many of Wigington's designs are now landmarks in St. Paul--a city that was both progressive enough to commission him to do his work and regressive enough to have largely obfuscated his contribution to the urban landscape.

Wigington started his career in Wyoming designing potato chip factories. When the spud industry stagnated, he moved to overwhelmingly white Minnesota. As the story goes, he won the coveted city job by drawing a perfect floor plan of the St. Paul cathedral without ever setting foot inside. He went on to design a number of local landmarks, including the clubhouse at the Keller public golf course (probably one of the few in the Cities where he might have been welcome), the Harriet Island Pavilion, and an Art Deco Ice Palace that local architecture aficionados still discuss with reverence. While some of Wigington's best work has long since melted, his most enduring creation, the water tower, still stands.

In 1976, nine years after Wigington's death, the city did install a commemorative plaque on the tower he designed. Unfortunately, it is on the inside of the structure and locked from public view 364 days of the year.

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