Landmarks Commission Decision Means it’s Open Season on Chicago Water Tanks

Water tank atop 114 South State Street

For generations it has stood silently watching downtown Chicago pass by. It’s seen parades and protests. Shoppers and scoundrels. Packards and Priuses. And it stood by as That Great Street turned into a pedestrian mall and then back into one of the Chicago’s great streets. Now the days are running out for the short and stout little water tower atop 114 South State Street. The city has issued it a demolition permit.

There’s no particular reason to lament the disassembly of this squatty, graffitied portion of the city’s historic infrastructure. Except that it is one of an increasingly small number of water towers left in Chicago. The way we look at old pictures of downtown and boggle at the streetcars and mechanical stop signs, future generations will look at pictures of today and wonder what those giant black barrels are in the skyline. Are they apartments for hermits? Antique advertising marquees? Maybe some primitive form of wireless communications tower? The water tower is officially an endangered species in Chicago.

What signed its death warrant was the Commission on Chicago Landmarks. At its November 2014 meeting, the body that protects the city’s built environment from reckless change changed its own rules about what deserves to be protected. The humble water tower, commissioners decided, is not worth saving.

The change came as part of the response to a petition from DK Condo. It asked for permission to remove the water tank on top of the Donohue Building at 711 South Dearborn Street in the Printers Row area of the South Loop.

The Landmarks committee granted permission in the usual way, and then added something unusual:

Moving forward, unless water tanks are specifically addressed in the landmark designation ordinance for a specific property or district, Historic Preservation staff shall review and approve the applications for their removal without further review and decision of the Permit Review Committee or the Commission.

Greektown TankAnd with that, hundreds of water towers across Chicago’s roofs shivered to themselves, knowing that for the most part, there’s nothing standing between them and a demolition crew. Also concerned are those Chicagoans for whom rooftop water tanks are cultural landmarks, if not official ones.

In April of 2013, Chicago Architecture Blog reporter Bill Motchan interviewed artist Larry Green who featured the city’s water tanks in his work. He even published a book about Chicago’s water tanks.

In addition, companies like Greek Islands restaurant in Greektown and Optimus in Streeterville put their logos on water tanks.

And just last year there was a river of angst across the north side of the city when the Polar Vortex killed the flag-painted water tank atop the Swedish-American Museum in Andersonville. That tank couldn’t be saved, but as evidence of how much water tanks can mean to a community, the museum has already raised more than $100,000 to replace the 87-year-old tank with a replica.

Andersonville

Editor

Author: Editor

Editor founded the Chicago Architecture Blog in 2003, after a long career in journalism. He can be reached at chicagoarchitectureinfo@gmail.com.

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3 Comments

  1. Is nothing that preserves the historic look of Chicago’s infrastructure worth saving these days…? I get that some of these towers can become dangerous liabilities if left unchecked over the years, but still… Why not try to preserve EVERY last bit of historical infrastructure this city has left? Would be interesting for someone to compare the amount of historical tear downs to preservations that have occurred in this city over the years to really put this concept into perspective.

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  2. As an artist who has documented water tanks in my paintings and photographs for 20 years this is disappointing. Unfortunately, the tanks are expensive to maintain and make money as being just a cellphone communications tower.

    Meanwhile, an organization in New York is celebrating the water tanks with art to promote water awareness: http://www.thewatertankproject.org

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  3. I have taken down numerous water tanks in the city of Chicago. Definitely the most dangerous tanks I have ever dismantled. Once they are no longer in use and holding water they dry out in the bands all slip. No doubt they look very cool sitting on top of buildings but if A good storm knocks One of those beautiful tanks over there will be a massive amount of weight raining down upon the sidewalks and streets of Chicago. I think a much cooler and safer means of displaying this wood from the tanks would be to remove them and make some beautiful public displays using that material.

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