As I passed by the Fresno Historic Water Tower on a beautiful Fall day, something intangible pulled me towards the doors to see what was inside this most unusual building. Immediately, I felt magic as my sense of adventure and curiosity pulled me through a portal to an era passed and into an imaginary world of Norman Rockwellian whimsy.
Warmly greeted by Netherlands native volunteers Donna and Jan Kohler, who lovingly keep up this Visitor Center, I was drawn into the castle-like feel of this most unique building. “Where else can you go and look up and see this architecture?” says Donna. “This is not just a metal tower on sticks!”
The round cylindrical brick walls of the tower rise high to meet tall the ceiling and an 8 ft. circular stained glass window. Three windows below host a Juliet balcony. A second balcony surrounds the outside and wraps around a turret on the side of the building. Sitting atop the tower is a dome shaped roof, all suggesting a European appearance. Encircled in this brick citadel, the tale was told how this National Registered site came into being and what purpose its original design meant to serve.
As Fresno grew in the late 1800s, and the water needs increased, the Fresno Water Company was purchased by Investors from Chicago who had the aesthetic insight to hire an architect who was inspired by an elegant water tower in Germany. Influenced by the Great Chicago Fire of 1871, which burned down the Chicago Public Library, but not its water tower, George Washington Maher designed a functional water tower that encased a library on the second and third floors. A great circular stairway would usher patrons to floor two and a straight ladder, flush with the wall, would grant 3rd floor access.
Although these library plans were never constructed, the blueprints and drawings are prominently on display so that imagination can trick the eyes and mind into “seeing” the turn-of-the-century patrons browsing the shelves, reading and studying directly above the ground-floor historic museum, gallery and local artisan gift shop.
The water tank was constructed above the tower and held 250,000 gallons of water (approximately 2,050,000 million pounds! For 67 years the tank served the community until its pumping system became insufficient to meet the tenfold population increase and the needs of Fresno residents in 1963.
Located right across from the Fresno Memorial Auditorium on Fresno and O streets,the Fresno Arts Council now operates the Tower. It is used for the Visitor Information Center, a gallery for local artists, a historical museum, a gift shop and a venue for Art Hop, Teas and Book Readings, and other local special events. When you visit, you may even get lucky to find a volunteer that will unlock the secret doors and take you into the hideaway passages that surround the base of the tower!
After the tour, I reluctantly headed back to work taking the magical feeling with me, ready to discover more about the history and roots of this town. With my interest piqued, I realized that I need to get out of the office more often! So, whether you have lived in Fresno for generations, are new to town or just visiting, be sure to take the time to experience the bygone days of downtown Fresno.