With the October 2020 sunset date approaching, those working to save Brainerd’s historic water tower got an extension.
After a presentation from Mayor Dave Badeaux, packed full of historical facts dating back 100 years, the city council voted unanimously to give the citizen’s water tower committee until at least June 2021 to continue working on the project.
When chunks of stucco fell from the downtown structure in 2018, city council and staff members started to discuss the tower’s future. The city council earmarked $300,000 for the tower’s destruction while also giving citizens who wanted to raise the money to save it two years to do so. After a committee formed, the council set the sunset date at Oct. 24, 2020 — exactly two years after the committee’s first meeting.
With that day fast approaching and momentum — and funds — building, committee members asked the council for an extension. Badeaux, who serves as the council liaison to the committee, made that plea Monday, Oct. 5, after providing a brief background of the tower and an update on recent fundraising efforts.
Water tower background
Construction on the water tower began in 1919 and wrapped up Dec. 10, 1920. The idea for the tower, Badeaux said, came after a series of about 14 major fires in the city between 1914-17. Problems with the city’s current water pressure and supply prompted the need for something new.
“Northeast and southeast Brainerd never had an adequate water supply. Pipes were laid improperly on Oak Street, and often they would freeze in the winter,” Badeaux said.
At the same time, he said, the state board of health was urging the city to find an adequate water supply, and state insurance inspectors threatened a raise in rates.
Thus was born the downtown water tower.
Designed by architect L.P. Wolff, the tower was the first all-concrete elevated water depository used by a municipality in the U.S. Concrete was decided on versus steel, as the railroad agreed to give the city the land for the tower if it was built out of concrete.
It was long thought to be one of two towers designed by Wolff still standing — along with the tower in Pipestone — but Badeaux said he recently learned of the St. Mary’s Hill Park tower in Rochester as well. Global building information provider Emporis lists the three towers under Wolff’s profile on its site. The Brainerd tower was the first of the three built, with Pipestone’s completed in 1921 and Rochester’s in 1924.
Issues with the water tower started popping up in 1928, Badeaux said, with severe leaks happening in the bowl at the top. At that time, the tower was relined with an eight-ply membrane — or protective barrier — and a hard red brick barrier from the floor to within 6 inches of the roof. Further work was done to combat the same issue in the late 1940s.
The water tower was retired from use around 1959-60 but has since remained an iconic feature of Brainerd, sitting at the intersection of Sixth and Washington streets downtown and appearing on the city’s seal.
In 1964, an examination of the tower’s interior showed the tie ring (a steel band encircling the top of the tower to keep the bowl from giving way due to water pressure) had disappeared after years of corrosion caused by iron in the water. In 1968, the city council earmarked $50,000 for the tower’s destruction and hired engineers to do a feasibility study. Five years later, in December 1973, Brainerd voters approved a $65,000 bond issue to preserve the tower. The vote passed 1,585 to 661, according to a Brainerd Dispatch article at the time. Part of the work that occurred as a result of that vote was the removal of the tower’s domed concrete roof. The idea behind that decision, Badeaux said, was the roof was putting too much pressure on the bowl. With its removal, the plan was for rain to go down through a gutter system and drain out of the tower.
That plan did not prove successful, as the tower continues to suffer from water damage today.
The committee’s first step in repairing the tower is to put a new roof on. Engineering reports over the last few years have shown no structural damage to the tower, but the bowl is likely to crack eventually without a roof. After that, Badeaux said the city can buy some time and figure any further action to take.
Along with the roughly $30,000 raised by the water tower committee, the group has also secured a grant from the Minnesota Historical Society to fund designs for a new roof. The city kicked in $12,500 in matching funds, while the historical society awarded the group $23,700 for the work.
The committee is now working with LHB in Minneapolis on the designs. Once those are completed — which should be spring 2021, the group can scope out cost estimates for the project.
Keeping history alive
“This isn’t just a water tower,” Badeaux told the council, referring to the structure as the Beacon of the North. “This isn’t just a water tower that showed up out of nowhere. It is a water tower with significance throughout the state and throughout the country.”
And residents of Brainerd already voted to save it once.
Badeaux showed the council a Brainerd Dispatch clipping from an unknown date thanking 54 people for their efforts to save the tower since 1964.
“I want you to look through that list, and I want you to realize the names that are on there and the history that comes from the process that this has been,” Badeaux said. “In 1968, people stood up and saved the tower.”
One of the names, he pointed out, was Merle Storm, whose granddaughter Ashley Storm is a committee member fighting to save the tower this time around.
“I do think it’s worth saving,” Badeaux said. “That’s not my decision. … I wanted to show people the process and let them make that decision.”
The council agreed to let the committee keep working and revisit the issue at the first council meeting in June 2021, when estimates for the cost of the roof should be available.
“Thank you to the committee for everything you’re doing for the community,” Council President Gabe Johnson said to Badeaux and the rest of the committee members present Monday.
Direct donations to the save the water can be made via debit and credit card by clicking the “Donate Now” button at brainerdwatertower.com; and cash or checks can be sent to Brainerd Community Action, 321 S. Seventh St. Suite 105, Brainerd, MN, 56401. Checks should be made out to Brainerd Community Action, and all donations should include a note earmarking the funds for the water tower. A GoFundMe is available at https://bit.ly/2MLJWRV.
Check donations of $250 or more will be eligible for refunds in the event the tower cannot be saved. The rest of the donations would go to Brainerd Restoration.
Water tower paraphernalia — like buttons, keychains, T-shirts and cribbage boards — are available for purchase at Visit Brainerd on Laurel Street.
Of the roughly $30,000 already raised, more than $8,000 came from a drive-thru fundraising dinner and silent auction Sept. 24 at the Brainerd American Legion. Badeaux originally estimated the profits to be about $7,000 but reported the higher total Monday.
Those interested in joining the water committee can apply at https://bit.ly/2SwQ4Rt. The committee meets at 6 p.m. the third Wednesday of each month, with the next meeting scheduled for Oct. 21, at city hall. The group is working toward becoming a nonprofit 501(c)(3) in hopes of securing more funding opportunities.