Anyone who has spent much time in St. Louis has seen at least one, and most likely all, of the three water towers that poke 150 feet or more into the city sky.
Officially, they’re standpipe water towers, and estimates indicate more than 500 towers once existed across the U.S. Now, there are seven.
Sure, they’re beautifully historic and feature three different types of architectural styles. And they were sociologically important and helped people locate their neighborhood for others.
But when they were operating in the late 1800s and early 1900s, what did they actually do?
Short answer: They kept the water system from exploding.
For a longer answer, you can always ask an engineer. And what better an engineer to ask than Curtis B. Skouby, St. Louis’ public utilities director and water commissioner.
While preservationists and modern city dwellers love the towers’ visual beauty, Skouby said engineers at the time were far more fond of the tall, wide pipes that were inside, shielded by the architecture.
“The city water system was piston-driven, so it would push a vast amount of water out, come back, and then push out another vast amount of water,” Skouby said.
“What this really was, in essence, was a water hammer, which would after a while blow apart the water pipes where they were joined — unless you had a place, a vent, for the air and water to go to relieve the direct pressure in the (main) line,” Skouby said.
“The standpipes did that,” Skouby said, adding that the towers never were meant to specifically store water.
In 1912, the city water plant switched to using a spinning pump that produced a steady discharge of water, instead of the dreaded piston surges, he said.
The oldest of our three towers is the Grand Avenue Water Tower, at Grand’s intersection with 20th Street. Completed in 1871, it is a 154-foot Corinthian column of brick and stone with cast iron trim.
W. Dudley McCarter, a lawyer and former president of the Missouri and St. Louis County bar associations, lived in the area when he was a boy. He said many businesses incorporated “tower” into their names.
“I remember going to the Tower Theatre at Grand and West Florissant several times and seeing the latest Frank Sinatra movie with my parents,” McCarter said.
“And I also remember them telling me that very rich people lived in the big homes around the tower,” McCarter said.
The second tower to be erected, in 1885, was the Bissell Street Water Tower at Bissell and Blair Avenue. This is the tallest of the three, standing 206 feet high and designed in the form of a Moorish minaret.
Both of these north St. Louis towers were built at their locations because of the proximity to the Bissell Street water treatment plant.
The Compton Hill Water Tower came last, in 1897. It’s next to the Compton Hill reservoir at South Grand Boulevard and Russell Avenue. It’s 179 feet high and designed by Harvey Ellis, who also designed St. Louis City Hall.
This tower was not taken out of service until 1929, but the water department used it until 1984 to hold its dispatch antennas.
In the 1990s, area residents rallied to form a support group and the tower was restored, to the tune of $19 million, in 1999. Now, it is periodically open for tours.
Skouby said in his 30 years with the water department, he has never heard of any move to have the towers demolished, as happened in numerous other cities across the U.S.
“When they first went up, the towers were significant because they indicated that the people no longer needed to have a well or a cistern to get water. They were a source of pride,” Skouby said.
“There are always concerns about how to pay for repairs. But in the 30 years I’ve been with the water department, I’ve never heard anyone wanting to tear them down,” he said. “People still love them.”