Falling stucco prompts meetings for historic water tower's future

"It's going to be a big decision, no matter which way it goes." One might expect this when there's discussions regarding the future of an iconic structure, Brainerd Council President Dave Pritschet told the Dispatch during a phone interview Frida...

Kelly Humphrey / Brainerd Dispatch
Kelly Humphrey / Brainerd Dispatch

"It's going to be a big decision, no matter which way it goes."

One might expect this when there's discussions regarding the future of an iconic structure, Brainerd Council President Dave Pritschet told the Dispatch during a phone interview Friday, July 13. The building in question? None other than the historic water tower, again placed in the heart of the city's discussions with reports early in the week that more of the aging structure's stucco exterior is flaking and falling to the ground below.

City Administrator Cassandra Torstenson said this was the first time she learned of flaking during her six months on the job and, to her knowledge, the structure had proven stable since the water tower underwent a series of restorative chipping projects in 2014.

The report stated pieces of the structure-larger than "tiny chips," Pritschet said, though not dramatic in size-were discovered in front of the law offices of Breen & Person at the corner of Washington and South Sixth streets.

This immediately prompted Torstenson to place it as an item for discussion in Monday's council meeting and Pritschet said it's added a sense of urgency to a lingering issue dogging the city for more than 40 years, particularly since the advent of the current decade.


"The concern is that if it were to hit somebody, it would hurt somebody," Pritschet said. "Basically, if we can either stabilize it, fix it or-I hate to say it-there's always the option to demolish it. It's something you have to look at."

According to Dispatch's Centennial Edition published in 1971, the Brainerd historic water tower was constructed between 1919-22 when a new water system was implemented in the city. It stands at 134 feet high, at one time featuring a maximum capacity of 300,000 gallons housed in a bowl created by a single pouring of concrete.

Designed by L.P. Wolff, it's one of two water towers by the architect still standing-the other being the Pipestone water tower-and it was the first all-concrete elevated water depository used by a municipality in the United States. Retired in 1959-60 from use, the historic water tower evolved from practical to symbolic purposes, elevated to a status as an icon of the city, an imposing presence on the Brainerd skyline and an image emblemized on the city's seal. It was added to the National Registry of Historic Places in 1974.

Interestingly, in 1971 the Dispatch reported a nearly identical predicament faced the city of Brainerd throughout the '60s and early '70s-stating "(The historic water tower) was drained in 1960, and since that time has been the topic of concern over its future. Some groups feel the tower should be repaired and retained as a landmark; others feel it should be removed because of its being a safety hazard."

Pritschet said there have been considerations of installing a steel roof on the currently uncovered water tower-a possible course of action discussed in the past that may be resurrected in Monday's council meeting.

The city has used netting on the exterior of the building and may do so again to "buy time" as Pritschet put it, to gather enough public input on the matter to move forward. Essentially, it will be a matter of determining if people want to cough up the money to save the water tower.

Installing a steel structure in the water tower would not threaten its historic status, Pritschet said, per discussions with City Engineer Paul Sandy. This move, which represents an initiative to rehabilitate the structure, would cost $2.1 million to roughly $2.3 million; a price tag for a cadre of substantial changes to the building, rather than merely preserving it as it is.

According to a 2014 assessment by engineering-architectural firm Short Elliott Hendrickson, going with the less invasive route of preservation/restoration would incur an estimated cost of roughly $846,400. Restorative projects would include replacing damaged concrete, stripping brick liner and other miscellaneous spot patching, among other fixes.


Per the same report, if the city so chooses, demolishing the water tower would fall anywhere between $150,000 to $300,000 on account of 2,000 tons of structural concrete, the tower's proximity to buildings and neighboring streets or railways, as well as its historic status.

Whether it's a matter of rehabilitation, preservation or demolition, the city may have to look at levying the funds from its residents through a referendum, Pritschet said, as external sources of funding sound like shaky propositions at best.

"That the big question," Pritschet said. "If I were a multi-millionaire, I would just get the dang thing fixed. That's the main challenge, how do we pay for it? It's been suggested to us that we wouldn't be able to get state aid from the (Minnesota) Legislature."

During Monday's discussion on the matter, Pritschet said council members will look for a distinct sense of direction to be established, as well as a timeline for when these changes will be implemented. The council meeting begins at 7:30 p.m. Monday in city hall.

What To Read Next
Get Local