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MN City Sets Deadline to Save Historic Water Tower

Thursday, August 16, 2018

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A city in Minnesota is facing a dilemma in relation to its landmark century-old concrete water tower: To demolish, or to save, at a cost in the millions—or to build a replica in order to preserve the tower’s appearance with fewer of the problems that come with it?

Brainerd City Council voted earlier this month to delay a final decision on its Brainerd Water Tower, designed by architect L.P. Wolff, built between 1919 and 1922 and added to the National Register of Historic Places in 1972. The tower was reputedly the first concrete elevated water storage tank used by a municipality in the United States, and has remained a symbol of the town even as it’s been out of use since the 1960s.

Brainerd Water Tower
Todd Murray, CC BY-SA 3.0, via Wikimedia Commons

The Brainerd Water Tower is a century-old historic landmark, but deterioration means it's a danger if it's not either rehabilitated or torn down soon.

Now, though, the 135-foot-tall, 300,000-gallon concrete behemoth is a hazard: According to the Star-Tribune, even as it was being considered for historic status, the tower’s roof was removed in the 1970s, speeding moisture intrusion and deterioration of concrete and stucco surfaces.

Falling concrete is a danger to anyone standing underneath the monument to municipal services, and the city faces a choice: It can get rid of the structure, jumping extra hurdles related to the historic status of the tower, at an estimated cost of $150,000-$300,000. Or it can preserve it in one form or another, an option that would please many residents and preservationists, but could come with a price tag of up to $2.5 million.

Possible Actions

At a council meeting Aug. 6, the city followed up on a memo sent in July outlining four primary alternatives for the future of the historic water tower. According to city managers, engineers and planners, the municipality could choose to:

  • Preserve the entire structure, installing a lightweight roof, repairing stucco and concrete and rehabilitating windows, at a cost that a 2014 report from Short Elliott Hendrickson and Braun Intertec estimated at $2.44 million (which the city estimates with inflation would fall closer to $2.6 million);
  • Preserve the structure, but not to historic standards, losing historic status (this would involve removing damaged concrete and stucco and repairing with shotcrete and coatings), estimated around $1 million;
  • Remove the tower and replace it with a replica using more modern water-tower construction methods, an option without a solid cost estimate given there’s no precedent for such a project; or
  • Remove the tower completely, with demolition costs between $150,000 and $300,000.
Brainerd water tower
National Park Service

The structure was designated as historic in the early 1970s, around the same time the roof was removed.

Two-Year Timeline

Rather than make an immediate decision, the city voted to give citizens two years to raise money for a potential preservation project, then return to the conversation to determine the best, most feasible option. A Citizens Committee will also be established.

In the meantime, council will begin setting aside the $300,000 needed to demolish the structure, money that can be used as part of the preservation effort if the fundraising efforts are successful.

Given that the full cost of the preservation could total about $3 million, that leaves quite a bit of cash to be raised privately. Community group Brainerd Community Action is spearheading efforts, and two days after the council meeting, the group had raised just over $1,000 toward the project.


Tagged categories: concrete; Historic Preservation; NA; North America; Program/Project Management; Stucco; Water Tanks

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