Saving Our Historic Water Tower, One Bite at a Time

Last year I wrote about efforts to save the landmark historic water tower in my hometown of Brainerd, Minnesota. This is a follow up to that prior post.

The city of Brainerd has formed a committee to do the impossible: raise millions of dollars to save the historic water tower.

The city council has been given just two options. The first is to spend millions of dollars repairing the water tower all at once, completely and forever more solving the problem. The other option is to spend a smaller amount of money tearing down the tower, destroying an iconic landmark and a piece of our history. No wonder the city council has sent this to a committee; it’s an impossible pair of choices.

Either eat the entire elephant in one sitting or starve to death. It’s self-defeating to unnecessarily limit ourselves to these two extreme options.

There is a third approach that has not been presented or widely discussed, one that I’ve brought forth to the city’s staff but has gone no further. To save the water tower, we need to break the process down into bite-sized pieces, addressing the urgent challenge in front of us as part of a longer-term commitment to our heritage.

First Things First

The most urgent issue is insurance. There is old stucco flaking off in large chunks from the side of the tower, which threatens serious harm to people and property below. The city’s insurance carrier is rightly concerned and, according to the city’s staff, has indicated that—at some point in the future—they will no longer insure the property if this issue is not addressed. If that happens, the city will be liable for any damages that might occur.

While the city could self-insure, the threat of losing insurance is the Sword of Damocles that hangs over our heads and is forcing the rigid timeline on a decision. To give ourselves some breathing room, we should immediately address this issue.

There are a couple of relatively inexpensive ways this could be done. Neither is pretty, but they are both better than losing the tower.

The fix-it-and-forget-it approach our public project selection process tends to prefer often gets us to where we are today: decades of little to no maintenance, followed by an enormous bill we can’t afford.

First, we could simply remove the stucco. The brick structure is sound and under no threat of collapse; it is only the flaking stucco that is the problem. No stucco, no flaking. Remove the stucco and we address the immediate concern, giving ourselves time to come up with a longer-term approach.

Alternatively, we could install a net covering the top bowl of the structure, similar to what you might see on the side of a mountain pass where falling rocks are a hazard. This is an accepted approach that has also been used in old stadiums and other historic structures while work is proceeding.

Either of these approaches would reset the clock, allowing us more time to develop a real restoration plan instead of pinning our hopes on a desperate Hail Mary attempt at a state or federal grant.

Addressing the Underlying Problem

The city staff has indicated that stucco is flaking from the side of the tower because water is seeping from the inside, through the brick, then freezing and thawing behind the stucco. The tower is open to the sky—there is no roof—so every time it rains or snows, moisture gets inside.

The one alternative put forth, a metal cap of the structure, is perhaps the most expensive way to address this chronic problem. It’s the equivalent of using a sledge hammer to drive home a nail. A metal cap treats the historic tower as if it were a functioning water tower instead of what it is: a non-functional landmark.

There are two, far less expensive, alternatives that would work just as well for a landmark, albeit without the fix-it-and-forget-it appeal. The first is to seal the inside of the tower: we could paint the inside surface with sealant paint to prevent water from wicking through. This would be cheap and effective.

A second option, or one that could be done in addition to the sealant, would be to put on a wood cap with an asphalt-based roof. This would be far less expensive than a metal cap and work just as well.

These alternatives are not on the table because it is felt they are not a permanent fix to the problem. This is true, but a metal cap is also not a pass to a maintenance-free future. The fix-it-and-forget-it approach our public project selection process tends to prefer often gets us to where we are today: decades of little to no maintenance, followed by an enormous bill we can’t afford.

Restoration and Maintenance

Once we’ve taken the immediate threat off the table and then addressed the underlying problem, we can begin the restoration process of replacing the stucco and repainting the tower. This doesn’t have to be done all at once. In fact, if the choice is between doing everything in one large project we can’t afford or breaking it up into bite-sized pieces we can handle, there is good reason to opt for the latter, even if our tower looks a little like a work-in-progress for a while.

I realize we’re not used to doing things this way—we prefer the big project—but this kind of incremental restoration is common around the world. In most other places, there isn’t such a rush to borrow money for a quick fix of what is really a long-term, chronic issue.

We have an historic water tower. We have a city hall. We have streets and sidewalks and parks and other public buildings. We need to come to grips with the reality that these must be maintained, and that maintenance requires way more money — not to mention commitment — than we’re currently prepared to spend.

We are used to the following dysfunctional cycle:

  1. Do a large project.

  2. Experience a long period of decline in which the project slowly falls apart.

  3. Do another large project to fix or replace the original.

This cycle needs to end. Not only do we face a crisis with these large, unpayable bills, we are forced to live through a period of decline when we should be able to have nice things.

The historic water tower must be saved, but in the absence of a yet-unknown benefactor or a big gift from the state government, the path we’re on is not going to get it done. We have the capacity to do this. Let’s get out of own comfort zone, own this challenge as a community, and take the prudent steps to keep and restore one of our important landmarks.

(Cover photo via Public Domain Pictures. Creative Commons license.)