Neighborhood Gems

Neighborhood Gems: Compton Heights Water Tower

Where can you find the best views of the city? The Arch? Not even close, say the volunteers of the Compton Heights Water Tower Park and Preservation Society, who claim the 360-degree views from the Compton Heights Reservoir Park’s 170-foot Victorian water tower surpass any other.

“It’s the best view of the city that exists,” says John Maxwell, society president. “The sunrises, sunsets and moonrises are incredible from up there.” It was the stunning views, as well as the tower’s unique history and architecture, that spurred a group of volunteers, largely from the surrounding neighborhoods, to form the society in 1999 that would revive the once-great structure. At the tower’s grand opening the following year, thousands showed up to see the Victorian gem that had been closed for decades, Maxwell says.

The tower was built on the city’s highest point in 1899 and is an example of the medieval Romanesque style, which is characterized by the use of semi-circular arches. Designed as a surge tower, it relieved the pressure on pipes coming off the river that were pumped with a piston pump steam engine, Maxwell explains. In the 1920s, the tower became obsolete when the old steam engine pumps were replaced by electric ones.

Although similar towers were used all over the country, not many survived the following decades. The ornamental nature of the Compton Heights tower saved it from destruction; in 1972 it was listed on the National Registry of Historic Places. Today, it’s one of only a handful of such towers in the U.S.; two others also are in St. Louis. “St. Louis was prospering when the tower was built, so the city spent the money on fancy stonework,” Maxwell says, adding that the tower is solid masonry. “There’s no commercial steel in it besides the stairs. The roof is terracotta wired onto an iron framework with copper wire, so it’s really durable.”

The tower is open to the public from noon to 4 p.m. the first Saturday of every month, March to November, and on full moon nights (check online to make sure it’s open, as weather or park construction can cause cancellations). General admission is $5; kids younger than 5 are free. Memberships also are available for $25 and come with free admission all year. Besides the beautiful views, visitors to nighttime openings can enjoy live music and goodies from food trucks. The surrounding park also has plenty to offer visitors, including a large reservoir wall with ornate fountains designed to mimic the gardens of an Italian villa. From the 1930s until World War II, the reservoir was covered with tennis courts. The park also includes ‘The Naked Truth,’ a bronze statue gifted to the city in 1914 by the German-American Alliance. Plans are in the works for renovations to the park, including expanding it to its original size and recreating its Victorian landscape.

when » The first Saturday of each month from March to November and on full moon nights
where » Compton Hill Reservoir Park on Grand Avenue
why » To see 360-degree views of the city and admire the tower’s Victorian architecture

Photo courtesy of Compton Heights Water Tower & Park Preservation Society