You may not know its name, but you’ve seen the Town of Lake Water Tower and Municipal Building, 4001 S. 6th St. – I guarantee it. The nine-story unpainted concrete tower, with its domed top, is the most recognizable landmark on Milwaukee’s South Side between the airport and the dome of St. Josaphat.
If you’ve never gotten up close, you’ll be forgiven for being unaware of the structure’s art deco charms. If you’ve never been inside, you’ll be in for a treat when the water tower – now owned by the City of Milwaukee – allows visitors for Doors Open in September.
Recently, I drove over there and took a look. Don Schaewe Jr., environmental code manager for Milwaukee’s Dept. of Neighborhood Services showed me around, pointing out that the tower was constructed on the highest point of the old Town of Lake.
The location was significant for a couple reasons. First, a water tower is a key part of building pressure into a municipal water system, so height is helpful. Also, the tower served as the Town of Lake’s municipal building, so it was only fitting that it occupy a place of pride.
A little history on the Town of Lake. Founded in 1838, the sprawling Town of Lake was quickly diminished in size when Franklin, Greenfield and Oak Creek were carved out of it in 1840. Still, the smaller Town of Lake was pretty darn big, stretching from Greenfield Avenue to the north to College Avenue on the south, and from Lake Michigan to the east to 27th Street to the west.
Parts of the Town of Lake are now Cudahy (founded in 1895), St. Francis (1951) and Milwaukee neighborhoods like Bay View (which "seceded" in 1879) and Tippecanoe.
In the 20th century, development in the Town of Lake was booming and the municipality needed a "city hall" and a water system. Apparently, town fathers wanted the latter in part as a means for keeping out Milwaukee’s water system. It was feared Milwaukee pipes would not only provide water, but would also suck away the town’s independence.
So, in the mid-30s Town of Lake hired West Allis engineer William D. Darby by design a combination water tower municipal building and he did so in the en vogue art deco style.
Erected with funds provided by the Federal Works Administration, the building was officially opened in January 1940 and cost $1.33 million.
The top and bottom of the building were key parts of the water works, while the floors in between were town offices. There was a window in the lobby where folks could pay their taxes. Also on the first floor were health department offices at which some South Side kids might remember getting vaccinations.
There was also a public library in the building for a while.
The third floor was long rented to the Town of Lake band, which rehearsed and stored its instruments and uniforms up there. That arrangement continued even after the building was renovated around the dawn of the 21st century, but, sadly, the band no longer exists, its instruments long since donated to Marquette University, Schaewe says.
In the end, Milwaukee didn’t need pipes to grab the Town of Lake, which was annexed in 1954 becoming Brew City’s 19th Ward. In 1855 the Town had a population about 2,100. By the time of its annexation, Lake was home to 15,000 souls.
These days, the water tank is empty, the water filtering beds in the basement are dormant locked away due to their perilous nature. The third floor has a conference room that is utilized by neighborhood groups and is also a polling place sometimes.
The first and second floors are occupied by the City of Milwaukee’s Nuisance Environmental Health and Residential Code Enforcement offices.
Before meeting Schaewe, I look around outside and in the lobby. The sleek octagonal tower has metal windows at a couple levels, and feels taller than it is thanks to the sleek vertical "empire" lines Darby utilized on the exterior.
On the lowest floors, a squared base with offices embraces the tower. Here, the vertical lines and metal window units are repeated, creating unity. The main entrance has ornate iron work above the doors and art deco lamps mounted on either side of the entry.
Inside there is a spacious two-story lobby with a grand staircase that splays out along the left and right walls, with an arched entry leading into the first floor offices. A similar opening, further back, at the top of the stairs offers entry to the other offices.
There is beautiful variegated terra cotta tile work in the lobby, along with terrazzo stairs and decorative iron railings. Unfortunately, remodeling removed the tile and metal work in the office spaces.
Off to the left, on the second floor, is a staircase that leads up to the conference room, which is a large, tan, open space given color by a range of flowering plants tended by workers from the offices below.
On the fourth floor are mechanicals and windows that offer good views in all directions, including, in the northern distance, the Downtown skyline, and down below, the Howard Avenue Water Purification Plant, which rendered the water tower extinct.
Here, one can see the crossed steel beams that support the structure. And it has to be a strong one to support the gigantic water tank suspended above.
Up another flight of stairs, we walk through a door and are in a space that takes up an entire floor of the tower and is perhaps three stories high. At the top is the underside of the now-empty water tank.
Of the many "hidden" spaces I’ve seen in Milwaukee, this is among the most breathtaking. There are metal ladders running up the walls that disappear between narrow space between the tower’s concrete walls and the water tank. Of course, we’re not allowed to climb them and I doubt I would even if allowed, despite the metal hoops meant to provide a measure of safety.
Like you, I’ve driven past this tower, seen it from airplanes and spied it from as far away as I-94 near Marquette University and I’ve never really had the slightest idea what it might look like inside.
The striking tile and metal in the lobby was the first revelation. Getting up close (well, as close as possible) to the tank itself is really fun.
When the tower opens up for Doors Open, visitors will be able to experience the lobby and this breathtaking space, too. Mark your calendar.
Born in Brooklyn, N.Y., where he lived until he was 17, Bobby received his BA-Mass Communications from UWM in 1989 and has lived in Walker's Point, Bay View, Enderis Park, South Milwaukee and on the East Side.
He has published three non-fiction books in Italy – including one about an event in Milwaukee history, which was published in the U.S. in autumn 2010. Four more books, all about Milwaukee, have been published by The History Press.
With his most recent band, The Yell Leaders, Bobby released four LPs and had a songs featured in an episode of TV's "Party of Five," and films in Japan, South America and the U.S. The Yell Leaders were named the best unsigned band in their region by VH-1 as part of its Rock Across America 1998 Tour. Most recently, the band contributed tracks to a UK vinyl/CD tribute to the Redskins and collaborated on a track with Italian novelist Enrico Remmert.
He's produced three installments of the "OMCD" series of local music compilations for OnMilwaukee.com and in 2007 produced a CD of Italian music and poetry.
In 2005, he was awarded the City of Asti's (Italy) Journalism Prize for his work focusing on that area.
He can be heard weekly on 88Nine Radio Milwaukee talking about his "Urban Spelunking" series of stories.