Put a lid on it: Roof construction begins on historic Brainerd water tower
Work began this week on a new synthetic rubber roof for Brainerd's downtown water tower to prevent further water intrusion.
BRAINERD — A project at least four years in the making is finally underway.
It was October 2018 when a group of citizens began meeting to figure out how to raise funds for much-needed renovations to Brainerd’s historic water tower.
The City Council gave them two years . But with the interruption of the COVID-19 pandemic and progress on the effort still being made, that 2020 sunset date was pushed back .
The issue was stucco falling off in chunks, largely due to decades of water damage as rain fell in the century-old tower’s exposed bowl. Engineers deemed the tower itself structurally sound but originally estimated the price tag for renovations to be $3 million.
Demolishing the tower, which hasn’t been in use for more than 60 years, was 10 times cheaper, expected to cost $300,000.
While some didn’t think saving the structure was worth it, a whole community banded together to do just that.
Four long years later, several of those involved in the process braved freezing fall temperatures Monday, Oct. 17, 2022, to celebrate the beginning of the project.
“It’s been a long, long process,” Brainerd Mayor Dave Badeaux said to the small group gathered. “We’ve went through a lot of different studies, a lot of different processes to get to this point.”
Hy-Tec Construction crews estimate it will take five weeks to put a synthetic rubber roof on top of the tower, weather depending.
“It’s like a dream come true,” longtime Brainerd resident Mary Koep said by phone Tuesday, Oct. 18.
Koep sits on the committee of citizens dedicated to preserving the 100-year-old piece of Brainerd’s history.
“All of us are just ordinary people, and we had a dream that we could save it,” Koep said. “We love it. It’s an icon. We can’t imagine our town without it.”
And neither could a lot of others, judging by the community’s support.
“And the public for the most part were overwhelmingly supportive. They wanted to see the water tower saved,” she said.
So they bought keychains to carry around, T-shirts to wear, mugs for their coffee, ornaments for their Christmas tree and calendars for their walls — all bearing the white concrete icon. Some donated cash or checks, and others volunteered their time.
The Minnesota Historical Society contributed grant dollars to both the new roof and its designs, and the City Council allocated matching funds from those they had earmarked for the tower’s demolition.
And splitting the project into phases made the cost much more manageable. Hy-Tec Construction bid the first phase at $385,000 for a new roof and lighting. Higher than expected costs forced the committee to hold off on updates to the windows and stairs until a later date.
“We’re very privileged to have been awarded the bid on this project,” Hy-Tec owner Mitch Feierabend said Monday, as the sound of heavy equipment rumbled in the background. “Thank you for the opportunity, and we’re going to do our very best to keep this thing up for a long time.”
Crews will start by putting up scaffolding to work from inside the tower’s bowl, remove some of the interior brick and set the stage for Thelen Heating and Roofing to place the roof.
But the committee’s work doesn’t end with the roof.
For the next phase of work, members will seek a stucco study to determine the exact cause behind the chunks of stucco that have fallen from the tower in recent years and figure out how much repairs will cost. That study is estimated to cost around $50,000, at least part of which the committee hopes to receive from another historical society grant next year.
“It’s been a labor of love,” Koep said. “And we’re not giving up. We’re going to keep chugging along.”
About the tower
Construction on the water tower began in 1919 and wrapped up Dec. 10, 1920. The idea for the tower, Badeaux previously said, came after a series of about 14 major fires in the city between 1914-17. Problems with the city’s water pressure and supply prompted the need for something new.
Thus was born the downtown water tower.
Issues with the water tower started popping up in 1928, with severe leaks happening in the bowl at the top. At that time, the tower was relined with a protective barrier and a hard red brick barrier. 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 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 domed concrete roof was then removed, as it was thought to put 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.
Supporting the tower
Donations to the tower can be made online via the “payments” tab on the city’s website at ci.brainerd.mn.us , with a $2.95 service fee applied to all electronic check transactions and a 3.5% service fee applied to all credit card transactions. The water tower committee is a 501(c)(3) nonprofit, so all donations are tax-deductible.
Water tower memorabilia is on sale at Visit Brainerd in downtown Brainerd, with all proceeds benefiting the tower’s restoration.
Water tower committee meetings are open to the public. The group meets at 6 p.m. the third Wednesday of each month at city hall, with the next meeting Oct. 19.
For more information, visit brainerdwatertower.com or follow the Save the Historic Brainerd Water Tower page on Facebook.
THERESA BOURKE may be reached at email@example.com or 218-855-5860. Follow her on Twitter at www.twitter.com/DispatchTheresa.