A Tale of Two Towers

Daniel Corrigan

Today's top-of-the-line water tower holds three million gallons. It's a monument to modern, efficient engineering. You want at least 40 pounds-per-square-inch of pressure in the municipal water system to keep faucets, showers, and toilets flowing, and your new tower will exert around one pound of pressure per 2.3 feet of height. The larger the capacity of the tank and the higher the elevation, the stronger the water pressure in the surrounding neighborhood. You want the dishwashers and the automated lawn sprinklers and the washing machines to run at optimal effectiveness, you're definitely going to want a substantial water tower with a serious vertical thrust. The average one can be thrown together in as little as six weeks with pre-welded steel plates. They're built in the shape of suspended jellyfish to minimize surface area and painted light blue to reflect heat during the day.

Innocuous though they may seem, utilitarian structures like water towers reflect the sensibilities of a culture. Think of the Roman aqueducts. A marriage of ingenious engineering and graceful design, they were constructed not just to serve their function, but also to stand for centuries as a public monument to the stability and elegance of the society that created them. Our steel jellyfish, then, would seem to reflect a culture in which sleek minimalism represents grace, and aesthetic considerations are subordinate to engineering pragmatism. There aren't many pre-jellyfish water towers left, but the few remaining tell us a great deal about the urban landscape we are creating and the one that we've left behind in the process.

The oldest and most beloved water tower in Minneapolis is hardly a monument to practical design. The Prospect Park tower, dubbed "the Witch's Hat" for its sharply peaked Spanish tile roof, was built in 1913 from cast-in-place concrete. Engineers first had to build a wood frame in the shape of the tower, then workers lugged concrete up the steep slope of Tower Hill and poured it into the mold. Efficient, no, but the culmination of their efforts is magnificent. When the tower was constructed, its perch was the highest point in the city. Compare this to the cathedrals that, by custom, topped the towns of Europe and pre-industrial America.

On a cold winter day, with the sun leaking from behind the clouds, the view is still splendid. From the base of the tower, the landscape sweeps down toward the river and up to the glass-and-light skyline of downtown. It's no surprise that the neighborhood around Tower Hill has adopted the landmark with sentimental enthusiasm. Ralph Rapson, former dean of the University of Minnesota's School of Architecture and a long time Prospect Park resident, has made hundreds of paintings and drawing of the Witch's Hat. "They sell out right away," he says. "Not that they're great, but it signifies the affection people have for that tower. Whenever you see it, you know you're home."

The tower's cognomen reflects its romantic ambiance. According to local legend, a gypsy encampment once occupied the area around Tower Hill, where 1930s Arts and Crafts-style homes now crowd winding tree-lined streets. The 111-foot tower itself looks like a lost fragment of a fairy-tale castle. F.W. Cappelen, the city engineer who designed the Witch's Hat and the red brick Kenwood tower near Cedar Lake, borrowed from the Norman Revival as well as the Late Gothic Revival styles that culminated in Disneyland's castle--a look which, in turn, owes much to the decadent chateaus of Ludwig of Bavaria.

That a municipal engineer in a pioneer town would choose to emulate the very paragon of design opulence for a simple water tower might seem ridiculous, but Cappelen's tower is a perfect reflection of the aesthetic fashion of turn-of-the-century America. Utilitarian structures were seen not just as complements to the existing landscape but as components essential to the definition of the area's character. The tower was meant to stand as long as the city itself and become, as it has, a public nexus of the neighborhood.

The Witch's Hat tower was decommissioned in 1953 and damaged by lightning two years later. When city officials announced plans to demolish the aging structure, however, neighborhood children went door-to-door with a petition to save it. In the end, the venerable structure got a $130,000 face-lift, which saved the original roof. These days the tower sees the most use around Easter, when a local church reenacts the march to Cavalry up Tower Hill and holds a service in the shadow of the Witch's Hat. Try to imagine this occurring in an asphalt mall parking lot, beneath one of the blue steel jellyfish, and the significance of the old tower becomes clear.


A few miles away in St. Paul, two enormous blue towers stand in a small park across the street from a bustling SuperAmerica. Looming in their imposing shadow is a smaller tower that looks like a diminutive landlocked lighthouse. Built in 1928 on what was then the third highest point in the city, the 134-foot octagonal Highland Park tower now looks out of place--like the bell tower of a Spanish mission church torn from its foundation and plopped in a parking lot. Though it has never enjoyed the same popular affection as its Minneapolis neighbor, the Highland Park tower is an even more interesting relic of local history.

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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