To the Tower! A Traveling We Go, Reporting from the Compton Hill Water Tower

For those of you expecting a fascinating piece on the Tower of London, I sincerely apologize. Instead I’d like to share an outstanding historical bit of architecture, the Compton Hill Water Tower. Check out this short video and read on for more info and the results of my Steampunk photo shoot!

What Is a Water Tower?

Water Towers were built to provide water for fire protection and as a reservoir during emergencies. The towers are built on higher elevations and constructed at a height to provide sufficient pressure to deliver water through a public works system. Water is pumped up into the structure and gravity helps bring it down. In the US, some of the first towers were enclosed in siding and called tank houses. On the eastern coast, these structures often included windmills to assist in the pumping and distribution mechanisms. In westerns, you often see the immense tanks mounted onto wooden scaffolding.

A Fading Need

At one time there were over 500 standpipe water towers in United States. Standpipe towers, made mostly of heavy metals, used steam driven pumps to equalize the water pressure and prevent pipes from exploding. The thick pipes were then surrounded by bricks or architecture for a more aesthetically pleasing view. There are only seven standpipe water towers left in the United States. Three of these towers are in my hometown of St. Louis, Missouri:

Grand Tower

The Grand “Old White” Tower, the oldest of the three, was built of painted brick at 20th St. and Grand Ave. in 1871. The brother of poet Walt Whitman, Thomas Whitman, led for the waterworks expansion and creation of these towers. It is a perfect 154 foot tall Corinthian column that has managed to survive the neighborhood decay that surrounds it.

Bissel Tower

The Bissell “New Red” Tower was built at Bissell St. and Blair Ave. in 1885. It’s red brick, grey stone, and terra cotta construction stands 194 feet high and “exudes a kind of Victorian seriousness, lofty but solid” according to an unknown writer of the time. It was in service until 1912. Just about a mile from the Grand Tower, it too resides in a blighted area and survived two demolition plans. It was completely refurbished in the 1970’s.

Compton Hill

Compton Hill Water Tower was constructed at Grand Blvd. and Russell Ave. in South St. Louis. The 179 foot tower was completed in 1898 and is the most grand of the three. Although taken out of service in 1929, it was completely rehabbed in the 1990’s. Below is my tale of a sojourn to the sky.

To the Hill

A few years ago, with work in the rearview mirror at 4pm on the first Friday night of summer, I headed to my initial destination, The Compton Hill Water Tower. A few quick basics: it’s located at South Grand and Russell Boulevard in St. Louis, MO. Designed by architect Harvey Ellis, it was completed in 1898 to cover an unsightly water standpipe. In 1904, the tower tour opened up for the World’s Fair and took over 5,000 visitors each Sunday that summer to 700 feet above sea level.

It is surrounded by a lovely park that includes “The Naked Truth” sculpture by Wilhelm Wandschneider, a small pond, a dog park and the water reservoir and tanks. It’s a quick 198 ornate metal spiral steps to the bell shaped top. You can view historical photos at little landings along the way, should you need a break on the journey. While it’s not open all the time, it is totally worth the $5 to go up on event nights, including Full Moons and one Saturday a month.

Full Moon at the Compton Water Tower

It was a Full Moon Opening. There were delicious food trucks, a smashing band and a really wonderful, laid back crowd in the park. I had arrived with perfect timing at 7:15pm, paid my fee, and headed up to late Victorian historical nirvana.

The 360 degree view from the observation deck is spectacular. Looking East you can see downtown with the Arch, far into Illinois, and the Anheuser Busch and Lemp Breweries. To the North you see SLU’s campus and hospital and Grand Center. In the Northwest, the New Cathedral and the stunning Chase Park Plaza Hotel are easily seen. The view South includes the Jefferson Barracks Bridge spanning over the Mississippi, located 20 minutes away in the St. Louis suburbs.

What a view!

There were more historical photos and free binoculars at the top. The windows were open all around and the most fantastic breeze blew through. Not a cloud was in the sky. The sun set and bathed the circular observation deck in a golden hue just as the full moon rose. The hour I stayed at the top was simply breathtaking. The other tourists were polite and jovial. Everyone was a pleasant shutterbug.

I finally came down and took more photos. The Tower glowed golden yellow in the deep blue of the approaching night. I’d planned to eat something, but the food trucks were almost out of everything. That was okay, though. I’d sated my appetite for history and dreaming. Another shutterbug walked me to my car. I hesitated giving out my number though. I was kind of enjoying a bit of vagabond independent life after the end of a four and half year relationship at the time. It was just me and the gorgeous full moon on the way home.

I now pass the Compton Hill Tower on my way to work every day and couldn’t resist stopping by during another Full Moon Opening, again during a Memorial Day weekend holiday. This time I gussied up and brought a good photographer friend, Lori Peterson. Results of our steampunk fashion shoot below:

For more information, The Compton Hill Water Tower, www.watertowerfoundation.org

Photo Credits: Fashion shoot of Victoria L. Szulc and Tower by Lori Peterson, Historic Photos by the City of St. Louis and Missouri Historical Society, Night Time and Interior Blog Photos by Victoria L. Szulc
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Victoria L. Szulc is a multi-media Steampunk artist/writer who is working her fourth Steampunk novel, Lafayette to London. You can follow her works on her blog and her author page on Amazon.

One thought on “To the Tower! A Traveling We Go, Reporting from the Compton Hill Water Tower

  1. Full moon tower tours?!? That is too cool!

    We have a tremendous steampunky resource here in Birmingham, Alabama. A blast furnace from the 1880’s is now a historic landmark. It is fantastic! The worlds largest steam engine is there. It was in use until 1952. It is also one of the United States most haunted places, as many men died gruesome deaths there. :-/

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