Under Your Nose – Fresno Water Tower

By Will Freeney | memo247365@gmail.com

Water towers are a universal fixture of the American landscape – providing a clean, gravity-fed water supply for the communities they serve. Their design has changed over the years, and various communities have used them as a means of advertising their presence, their town motto, and in some cases their whimsy. Nowhere, however, has a water tower been envisioned and manifested with such elegance, forethought, and unique style as the Fresno Water Tower.

As you criss-cross downtown Fresno, going about your business, pre-occupied with which one-way street you can take to get where you’re going and where you can find a vacant parking space, you might overlook the Fresno Water Tower. It is not exceptionally tall by modern standards, and in fact, the water tank was disguised by the third-floor level walls of the tower. Perhaps you did look over at it in passing and think, “Hmm, what a quaint adobe cylinder, here on the edge of this park.” (Eaton Plaza)

The water tower’s history goes all the way back to the 19th century chronologically and all the way back to Germany geographically and Chicago financially. Fresno Water Works was established in 1876 by partners George McCullough and Lyman Andrews. They, in turn, sold it to a group of Chicago investors for $140,000 in 1890. In 1893 that company hired George Washington Maher to design an elegant new water tower for the city. Maher provided a design that was inspired by a water tower in Worms, Germany.
G.W. Maher designed what you can see today at the corner of O Street and Fresno Street. His plan called for the lower interior portion of the tower to serve as a library. Although that function was never pursued, the original structure matched Maher’s blueprint in every other detail.

The tower consists of two portions: the upper of the three-story levels contains a 250,000-gallon tank, which weighed over two million pounds when full (the tank was decommissioned and emptied in 1963). Throughout its entire height, the tower consists of two walls. In the lower 30 feet of the tower, the outer wall is separated from the inner wall and slopes inward to join it at the 30-foot mark – creating a wraparound tunnel at the base and providing cantilevered support for the structure. Above that point, the inner wall slopes together to form the domed ceiling of the lower room while the outer wall continued upward to mask the water tank.

The lower portion, below the tank, is an open two-story room with walls that slope to a dome at 45 feet above the floor. Originally, there was a spiral staircase in the center, providing access to the second story balcony. All of this was included in Maher’s plans. At some point, the spiral staircase was removed, but it can be seen in the short-lived 1986 television series, “Fresno.”
The history of ownership and use of the water tower is as complicated as that of its design. The city of Fresno acquired the water tower in 1931. Its use as a water tower had been abandoned by 1963 when the water tank was emptied.

Subsequently, it was used by the city as a parking meter and water meter repair facility. In 2001 it was repurposed as a visitor center operated by the Fresno Convention and Visitors Bureau. The water tower’s latest chapter began in October 2014, when the Fresno Arts Council took over the operation.

Under their auspices, it still functions as the City of Fresno visitor information center – with a wide array of complimentary brochures and maps regarding local points of interest. The water tower now also functions as the Fresno Arts Council gift shop and gallery.

The FAC Water Tower gallery is an official ArtHop venue, with a featured artist of the month showing their work. There is also a wide array of local artists with longer-term exhibits in the Water Tower, including many well-known Fresno-area artisans as well as budding younger creatives. The products offered range from paintings in all media to photography to ceramics and textiles. There is also a sizeable selection of books by local authors about local topics – including the esteemed native son, William Saroyan.

All of this, plus the assistance of volunteer docent/curator/cashiers, is available inside the Fresno Water Tower, Tuesday through Saturday, from 10 am to 4 pm. The next time you have some time downtown, take the time to witness the unique architectural history and the accessible contemporary art residing at the southwest corner of Fresno and O Streets, adjacent to Eaton Plaza.

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