Perhaps, when driving through the streets of St. Louis, you noticed
one of three tall towers which seemed to serve no purpose and wondered
what it was. These three structures are the old standpipe water towers. These towers are
remnants of another time; each is at least a century old.
Before modern pumping methods, the steam-driven pumps that were used to send water throughout the city created
large surges in pressure, often causing the pipes to rattle and shake. This also caused multiple-story
houses to have difficulty getting water to upper floors. Standpipes (large vertical
pipes in which a column of water rose and fell to prevent surges)
were built to equalize water pressure. For aesthetic purposes, towers
were built to hide the standpipes.
In times past, nearly 500 of these towers dotted the cities and towns of the
United States. As technology advanced, however, standpipes
became obsolete, and most of the standpipes and the towers surrounding them were torn down.
Today, only seven remain, and St. Louis has three of them. All three have been listed on the
National Register of Historic Places since the early 1970s. They are the Grand ("Old White") Water Tower,
the Bissell ("New Red") Water Tower and the Compton Hill Water Tower.
Described as "the only
perfect Corinthian column of its size in the world," the Grand ("Old White")
Water Tower on 20th Street and Grand Avenue was built
during the waterworks expansion led by Thomas Whitman (brother of poet
Walt Whitman) following the Civil War.
The 154-foot tower, designed by architect George I. Barnett, was completed in 1871 at a cost
of $45,000. The tower is constructed of a brick shaft resting on a Chicago stone base and octagonal stone platform,
topped with an iron capital cast in a leaf design. It was retired from service in 1912.
In the 1920s and 30s, beacons placed atop the tower served as navigational
aids to pilots seeking Lambert International Airport. Legend has it that
Charles Lindbergh once used the lights to find his way home when he was
lost in a Mississippi River fog.
In 1933, after citizens objected to a recommendation that the monument
be torn down, Mayor Bernard Dickmann came to the tower's defense. "To
wreck this tower would, to my mind, verge closely on an act of sacrilege,"
the Mayor declared.
The Bissell ("New Red") Water Tower was built
in 1885-86 from design plans by Deputy Building Commissioner William S. Eames, a founder of the St. Louis chapter
of the American Institute of Architects. It was completed at a cost of $79,798 and was in service until 1912.
Constructed from red brick, light gray stone and terra cotta, the tower stands 194 feet high
and is located at Bissell Street and Blair Avenue. The interior of the tower once contained a spiral staircase
that led to a balcony at the top, but that staircase has since been removed.
The tower, in the words of one writer, "exudes a kind of Victorian
seriousness, lofty but solid," and its appearance has often been likened to a Moorish minaret.
Some of the residences in the circle surrounding the tower appear
to have been influenced by the structure's architectural style.
When Water Commissioner Conway Briscoe suggested in 1958 that the tower
be dismantled rather than spend money on repairs, he ran headlong into
sentimental opposition from Donald Gunn, President of the Board of Aldermen.
"I was raised within a block of that tower and used to run around it
in my bare feet," Gunn said, killing the demolition proposal and summing
up the emotional attachment many neighborhood preservationists express toward
After falling into dangerous disrepair in the early 1960s, there was another attempt to tear it down.
However, an investigation showed that restoring the tower would not be significantly more expensive than razing it.
The Bissell ("New Red") Water Tower was renovated in the 1970s
with a grant from the U.S. Department of the Interior, which was matched
by the City. It has since served as an important landmark for North St. Louis.
The Compton Hill Water Tower, the newest of the City's three towers,
is located at Grand and Russell Boulevards in South St. Louis. The tower, built on the 36 acre Reservoir Park, was
completed in 1898 after a design by Harvey Ellis at a cost of $48,000.
The 179-foot tower is made of rusticated limestone, buff-colored brick and terra cotta.
Its walls are adorned with carvings of mythical animals and leaf patterns. Inside, spiral steps take visitors
to the top of the tower where an observation deck under a bell-shaped roof of terra cotta tiles offers a 360-degree
view of the City of St. Louis.
During the World's Fair in 1904, as many as 5,000 people visited the
tower and promenaded in carriages through Reservoir Park.
Adjacent to the tower is the controversial statue "The Naked Truth,"
installed in 1913 to honor three German-born St. Louis newspapermen. When
the statue of the unclad woman made its debut, the brewer Adolphus Busch
declared himself "shocked," a widely shared sentiment in the City
at that time.
The Compton Hill Water Tower was taken out of service in 1929 when the Stacy Park Reservoir went into service.
Although it was no longer in service, the tower was occasionally opened for public tours. The tower was closed,
however, in 1984. For more than ten years, the tower stood unused and deterioration began to take over.
In 1995, the City of St. Louis Water Division embarked on an extensive renovation project to rebuild the Compton Hill Reservoir, which included the restoration of the Compton Hill Tower.
The renovation of the Compton Hill Water Tower was completed in 1999.