At the turn of the 20th century, standpipe water towers dotted urban landscapes across America, but today only seven remain – and St. Louis is home to three of them.
The Grand (“Old White”) Water Tower, the Bissell (“New Red”) Water Tower and the Compton Hill Water Tower all are listed on the National Register of Historic Places. The structures were built to house vertical standpipes that handled pressure surges in the urban water system of the late 1800s and early 1900s, when drinking water was pumped across St. Louis by the steam-powered Bissell Point waterworks.
And just like the cell towers of today that are disguised as trees or church steeples to make them a little easier on the eyes, the creators of the water towers of yore transformed the ugly vertical pipes into architectural masterpieces.
The Compton Hill Water Tower in South St. Louis was designed by Harvey Ellis, one of the architects of St. Louis’ City Hall and Union Station. The tower, completed in 1898, is 179 feet tall and made of limestone, brick and terra cotta. Inside, 198 steps spiral around the six-foot-wide standpipe.
It was functional until 1929, and gradually fell into disrepair. A four-year, $19-million renovation project was completed in 1999, and the tower is now open to the public on the first Saturday of each month from April through November, as well as on nights with a full moon.
The two other towers in St. Louis are located in the middle of roundabout traffic circles; the Grand Water Tower is surrounded by businesses, while the Bissell Water Tower is in a residential neighborhood.
As somewhat formally stated in the National Register of Historic Places application for the Grand Water Tower: “This combination of providing a housing for a necessary mechanical function in a large-scale public monument fortuitously gave to an otherwise ordinary section of St. Louis, a tall, vertical element which has served as an orientation and location reference point.”
The Grand Water Tower, at 20th Street and Grand Boulevard and easily observed today by traffic passing on I-70, was built in 1871; the architect was George I. Barnett. The 154-foot-tall, white-brick tower was last used in 1912.
Just a stone’s throw away is the Bissell Water Tower, also retired in 1912, at Bissell Street and Blair Avenue. Designed by William S. Eames and finished in 1886, it was built of red brick, light gray stone and terra cotta.
The Bissell tower was falling apart and slated for demolition in the 1950s, but public outcry saved it. The tower stands 194 feet tall.