Chicago’s Water Tower: Five Facts

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The Chicago Water Tower is a welcome, Gothic Revival surprise amidst the towering glass skyscrapers of Chicago’s Michigan Avenue. The building was completed in 1869 and has the appearance of a sandcastle with its yellow-toned, turreted design. The Water Tower and accompanying pumping station located across Michigan Avenue are not only unique physically but have a storied history. Here, the best of the Water Tower, in five quick facts:

  1. The Chicago Water Tower and pumping station were built with the locally-sourced Joliet limestone, which supplies the distinctive yellow-toned look of the buildings.
  2. The Water Tower buildings survived the Great Fire of 1871. According to local lore, Water Tower’s visibility and familiarity for Chicagoans quickly made it a rallying point  after the fire.
  3. Oscar Wilde visited Chicago in 1882 and referred to the Water Tower as a, “castellated monstrosity with pepper boxes stuck all over it.”
  4. The tower itself is a 182-foot ornate covering for a 138-foot standpipe, built to assist with pressure in the neighboring pumping station.
  5. The Water Tower used water from Lake Michigan, retrieved via a tunnel system designed by Ellis S. Chesbrough that pulled water at a location two miles offshore to avoid the pollution on the shoreline.

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Sources and Further Reading:

This ca. 1871 stereograph provides a dramatic view of Chicago after the Great Fire of 1871, taken from the Water Tower.

There is a beautiful 1929 photo of the Water Tower that gives a glimpse of the Magnificent Mile’s earlier years.

The Chicago Architecture Foundation on the Water Tower (includes a history of the building as well as associated tours).

The Magnificent Mile has a list of some of the notable buildings on and near Michigan Avenue, including the Water Tower.

For more information about the Great Chicago Fire, I recommend this site, a collaboration between the Chicago History Museum and Northwestern University.

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