Grand Avenue Water Tower
The Grand Avenue Water Tower (also known as "Old White"), the oldest water tower still existing in St. Louis, is a 154-foot structure, designed in the form of a very large Corinthian columnn, that stands in the College Hill area of St. Louis. Designed by distinguished architect George I. Barnett and completed in 1871, it was intended to conceal a standpipe of boiler iron five feet in diameter, which was used to absorb the surge from reciprocating water pumps in the area, thus helping to equalize the city's water pressure. Although there were over 400 such towers in the U.S. during the 19th Century, Old White is now one of only seven extant standpipe water towers in the world, and one of three located in St. Louis. (The other two are the nearby Bissell Water Tower, aka "New Red," and the Compton Water Tower, located in Reservoir Park.) Its use as a water tower was discontinued in 1912, but aircraft warning lights were later affixed to it. It was added to the National Register of Historic Places in 1970.
Backstory and Context
The St. Louis-based architect George I. Barnett – who also designed, among many other local buildings, the still-standing St. Vincent de Paul Church in LaSalle Park in downtown St. Louis – designed a brick and stone tower, surrounding the standpipe, in the shape of a 154-foot Corinthian columnn, complete with plinth (measuring 20 feet in diameter), base, shaft and capital, with cast iron trim at the capital. It has been called "the only perfect Corinthian columnn of its size in the world," and is one of the tallest if not the tallest such columnn. The entire tower surrounding the standpipe was completely unnecessary to the standpipe's utilitarian purpose vis-a-vis the St. Louis water supply; it was intended solely to be an attractive public monument. Construction of the entire structure was completed in 1871 at a cost of over $35,500.
In the interior of the tower, there had existed a space between the tower's inner walls and the standpipe, and a narrow winding stairway was constructed within this space to provide access to the top. Both the standpipe and the stairway were removed in 1912, when the original use of the tower was discontinued due to the replacement of the steam-driven water pumps with electric pumps. A vertical ladder was added to the now-hollow shaft inside the tower to allow for maintenance. Later, a railing was added to the top of the capital, and an aircraft warning light was placed at the tower's very top. Legend has it that aviator Charles Lindbergh found this light handy while navigating his plane in the fog over the city in the 1920s.
In 1933, a recommendation was made that the monument be torn down, and St. Louis citizens objected. Said then-Mayor Bernard Dickmann, "To wreck this tower would, to my mind, verge closely on an act of sacrilege," and the proposal was dropped. Another attempt to raze the tower occurred after World War II, but $15,000 was raised to restore it. In 1998, the tower underwent additional restoration and was lit by floodlights at night. Although not open to the public, and surrounded by a narrow fenced area, it attracts many photographers from the city and beyond, and still serves as a useful neighborhood landmark.