Macalester College student Brooke Sapper researched and wrote this essay on the Washburn Water Tower in 2019. Macalester College staff and Preserve Minneapolis supervised Brooke's project collaboratively.
The Washburn Park Water Tower, one of the most distinctive landmarks of the Tangletown neighborhood, is intertwined with the histories of Minneapolis, the United States, and public health theory. Its unique Art Deco design is characteristic of the 1930s, and it exemplifies the city’s steady movement toward urbanization.
A previous water tower on the site was intended to supply water to Washburn Park residents and to the Washburn Memorial Orphan Asylum, which opened in 1886. However, the tower did not have enough capacity to support the growing neighborhood. Problems with low water pressure increased steadily from the early twentieth century as the area’s population grew. When the orphanage was demolished in 1929 (and later replaced by Ramsey Junior High, now called Justice Page School), there was a demand for a new water tower.
Harry Wild Jones, one of Minneapolis’ best known and most prolific architects, was commissioned to design the new water tower in 1931. At age 72 and well past typical retirement age, he nonetheless needed the work during the Great Depression; the tower was one of his last designs. In addition to the financial support the project provided to his family, it was intended to provide jobs for some of the many unemployed.
The engineer for the project, Minneapolis resident William S. Hewett, had conducted experiments in the construction of concrete structures. His work focused on controlling potentially damaging shrinkage of concrete as it cured, and his conclusions were later dubbed the “Hewett System.” Although the system was better known as it applied to reinforced concrete bridges, Hewett also applied his system to the Washburn Park Water Tower, making it extremely watertight.
Completed in 1932, the water tower is 110 feet tall and contains a 58-foot-diameter tank with a capacity of 1,350,000 gallons -- over seven times that of the undersized original tower.
While its size was notable, the tower’s outward appearance gathered the most attention. Jones and Hewett worked with John K. Daniels, a Norwegian-American sculptor, to design the tower’s iconic exterior.
Daniels created eight 18-foot-tall statues, called “Guardians of Health” that were placed around the top of the tower to symbolically and heroically protect residents from water contamination and disease, which, at the time, were commonly thought to be the result of “miasma”– that is, “bad air.”
To further symbolize protection, each Guardian of Health is crowned with an 8-foot concrete eagle. Rumor has it that when Jones was working on his new home nearby (still standing at 5101 Nicollet Avenue), he was attacked by an eagle. The story goes that he captured the eagle and used it as a model for the eight statues. The angularly designed eagles, in their prominent positions near the top of the tower, provide a touch of Art Deco to the tower and add romance to the otherwise rather uninspiring topic of water supply.
In 1968, a switch in a nearby pumping station malfunctioned, overflowing the water tower and flooding the basements of area homes. Some people feared the tower was leaking, but that was not the case and proper function was soon restored.
Today, the water tower is no longer a direct source of water for the neighborhood. Instead, it is drained and refilled seasonally to boost water pressure. In 1983, the water tower was added to the National Register of Historic Places. In the heart of the area -- yet hidden from view from most angles -- the water tower is a semi-secret symbol of the Tangletown neighborhood.