Throwback Thursday
Chicago Water Tower Edition

Old Chicago Water Tower

Over the last dozen years, we’ve published drawings and schematics for dozens, if not hundreds, of new and proposed buildings in Chicago. They contain tons of great information, help people envision and understand a building before it’s built, and, quite frankly, you dig them.

But today, instead of showcasing the latest glass block to muscle its way into the Chicago skyline, we’re setting the Wayback Machine to 1869, when Chicago’s newest 18 story tall tower was the Pine Street Water Tower.

Today, the castellated old lady is a beloved symbol of the city’s history, but it wasn’t always that way. Hard to believe but after it was damaged in the Great Chicago Fire of 1871, it was largely left to rot. This was partly because the magnificent Gothic decoration we see today was heavily damaged by the fire, and because it became technologically obsolete. By 1911, it was disconnected from the city’s water works.

Diagram of the Old Chicago Water TowerA lot of local architecture history buffs will tell you that it was the demolition of the old Chicago Stock Exchange in the 1970s that first mobilized the city’s preservation movement. But in reality, it was this building that sparked that conservationist spirit half a century earlier.

In 1913, the city started a lackluster restoration project to make the unsightly and disused tower slightly less unsightly, but it never went very far. A few years later, the city proposed moving the water tower to make way for the project connecting Michigan Avenue to Lake Shore Drive.

In its fragile state, moving the tower was seen as a one-way ticket to collapse. And in the eyes of the city, that was just fine. That’s when the Chicago Historical Society and other preservationists got their act together. Not only did they convince the city to finish the restoration of the water tower, they made city officials promise to maintain the building and even re-route Michigan Avenue around it. That’s why Michigan Avenue bends to the east at Chicago Avenue.

Interestingly, all of the historic literature on the water tower indicates that it is 154 feet tall. But in 1994, the National Parks Service actually measured the tower and it is 182 feet, six inches to the tip of its spire. It further described the tower thusly:

Boyington was influenced by the European architectural writers of the 19th century, and by their depiction of the castellated Gothic style.  Illustrated among their engravings was the famous Cloth Merchant’s Hall of Bruges, Belgium.  Boyington’s water tower, seen in its theme and concept, bears a likeness to this renowned Gothic tower.  In both buildings, the exterior detailing of the structure — corner buttresses, lancet windows, slotted battlements, projecting turrets, wall piers, angular parapets, tower spires — all tend to conceal the underlying simplicity of the design.  In both structures, the first floor was seen as a grouping of four cubes into a square, to serve as a pedestal for the tower.  Two additional cubes, similar in size, were placed vertically on the base.  On this standing, the octagon tower was built.  The surface elements, seen on the facade of the building, provide the orchestration for its perspective view, an are essential to this Gothic masterwork.  The various frontal elements have the capacity to coalesce into a unified whole, and few American landmarks can project an image so graceful as this simple candelabrum format.

And like every other building schematic we’ve presented here, there is of course a bullet list:

  • Built: 1866-1869
  • Address: 800 North Michigan Avenue
  • Architect: William W. Boyington
  • 1913 restoration architect: W. Kallat
  • Height to observation deck: 151 feet
  • Maximum height: 182½ feet
  • Standpipe height: 138 feet
  • Standpipe diameter: three feet
  • Standpipe base weight: six tons, cast iron
  • Material: Joliet limestone
  • Listed on the National Register of Historic Places in 1973
  • The pumping station originally had four engines, one of which was considered the largest engine in the world at the time it was built.  It moved 2,750 gallons of water with each stroke.

Diagram of the Old Chicago Water Tower

Location: 800 North Michigan Avenue, Gold Coast

Author: Editor

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

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