Hilary Sedovic used to drive past a peculiar structure on East Grand Avenue during her commute.
Each time, she wondered: What’s that massive white column doing in the middle of the traffic circle?
"Did it used to hold up a building and something happened to that, but they kept it as a memorial of some sort?” Sedovic asked.
Further adding to the mystery were two other giant stone towers: a red one on Bissell Street, and another on South Grand Boulevard. She decided to enlist our help and submitted her question to our Curious Louis reporting series: What are those stone towers scattered around St. Louis?
To hunt down the answer, I took a trip to the Compton Hill Water Tower on South Grand earlier this month to meet Andrew Wanko, a public historian with the Missouri History Museum.
We slowly climb the 198 iron stairs that hug the edge of the brick structure. The staircase forms a dizzying spiral around a 140-foot iron tube.
That tube once held thousands of gallons of water, but as Wanko explains, it wasn’t a storage tank.
Before the three water towers were built in the late 1800s, St. Louis had a serious problem with its water supply: there was no way to regulate the pressure.
And the problem was getting worse. As the population of St. Louis swelled to more than 300,000 in the 1870s, it strained the water system.
“If everybody was using their faucets at once, it had very low pressure,” Wanko said. “If nobody was using their faucet, you might get hit with a huge blast of pressure that could blow the glass out of your hand if you’re trying to fill it up.”
The water towers provided a simple yet elegant solution.
The water inside the standpipe kept the pressure steady by pressing down on the water system and acting like a “giant shock absorber.”
‘Something beautiful in your own backyard’
The city built the three towers about 10 years apart, starting in 1871 with the white Corinthian column in north St. Louis that first caught Hilary Sedovic’s eye.
Next came the red Bissell Street tower in 1885, followed by the Compton Hill tower in 1898.
Each boasts a distinctly different style, Wanko explains, in part because they were designed by three different architects.
“They’re like bookmarks popping up across the city to see how the city was changing its look across 30 years,” he said. “This is just so people can get water out of their faucets, but they put all of this detail into it, like something you might see on a monastery in Germany.”
With its delicately carved stonework and bell-shaped terracotta roof, the Compton Hill tower may be the most ornate of the three towers.
It’s also the only tower in the city open to the public.
Anne Jones visited the Compton Hill tower on a crisp Saturday morning earlier this month in honor of her mom, Sarah, who also loved climbing the tower.
She lives a few blocks away in the Shaw neighborhood and guesses she’s probably climbed the tower at least 30 times.
“I just love it,” Jones said. “Walk up to the top, see something different every time you look out.”
She brought three friends with her, including Chanel Fielder.
“I didn’t realize St. Louis had so many trees,” Fielder said. “You have something beautiful in your own backyard, and you just don’t really appreciate the experience of it.”
Crestwood resident Vince Dieters understands the feeling.
He grew up on South Broadway near Anheuser-Busch, and said he drove past the Compton Hill tower all his life but never went inside.
The 78-year-old decided to climb the tower on a whim, after a construction detour rerouted him down Grand Boulevard. He stops to rest halfway up, and tilts his head back, examining the thick iron rivets along the length of the tube.
“What it took to put this together,” Dieters said. “And it’s still standing, it still works.”
Years of decline
Although the water towers were built to last, they quickly outlived their usefulness. As the city’s population continued to grow, the towers were unable to keep up with demand.
By 1929 — less than three decades after its construction — the Compton Hill tower shut down for good.
For city officials and some residents, said historian Andrew Wanko, the tower was “basically a broken TV set at that point.”
“They didn’t see it as something beautiful, necessarily,” he explained. “It was just something outdated that no longer had a use.”
The three St. Louis water towers have been threatened with demolition multiple times in their history.
In 1972, the Compton Hill tower was added to the National Register of Historic Places. But by 1995, after years of neglect and decline, the city considered demolishing it.
Local residents and neighborhood groups rallied to save the tower, and the city changed course, eventually completing a four-year, $19 million renovation of the tower, reservoir and park grounds.
John Maxwell, president and co-founder of the Compton Hill Water Tower & Park Preservation Society, calls the Compton Hill tower an “amazing piece of architecture.”
“It’s not a stone veneer, this is a big pile of rock,” Maxwell said. “It’s just so cute.”
The Compton Hill Water Tower & Park Preservation Society currently has about 150 volunteers, some of which open the tower to the public on the first Saturday of each month and during the full moon.
No such preservation group exists for the two water towers in north St. Louis.
Andrew Weil, executive director of the Landmarks Association of St. Louis, said the towers on Bissell Street and East Grand have “significant repair needs.”
Although Weil said there is no imminent danger of either tower collapsing, there is the possibility of masonry falling from the structures.
The Landmarks Association recently hired an engineering-and-architectural firm to assess the structural integrity of the towers and map out a phased plan to restore them.
“These structures are just too important to allow them to deteriorate and be lost,” Weil said. “We want to prepare them for their next century.”
The bulk of the funding for the assessment — totalling about $50,000 — came from a private foundation that wishes to remain anonymous. Once the final report is complete, the Landmarks Association will begin fundraising efforts.
Weil said the surrounding community has been very supportive of the project.
“While we were doing the engineering assessment, people came up and were concerned that we were planning to take the towers down,” Weil said. “It would be a shame to lose something that iconic from your neighborhood.”
Follow Shahla on Twitter: @ShahlaFarzan
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If you go:
Compton Hill Water Tower full-moon opening
Where: Compton Hill Water Tower, 1700 South Grand Blvd.
When: 4 - 7 p.m., Friday Nov. 23
Cost: $5 per person for adults, children 5 and under free