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Steampunk Days Out-Compton Hills Water Tower



I found out that the Victorian Era water tower in Compton Hill Reservoir Park would be open on September 3rd. I decided to make a special Steampunk Days Out trip to go see this structure.

During the Victorian era municipal drinking water systems used massive walking beam steam engines to move water to through the pipes. The steam engines were so powerful that they could produce high enough pressures to cause blow outs. To ensure the pipes weren’t damaged most systems had large diameter standpipes installed. These were often six feet in diameter and over 100 feet tall. The pressure would be bled off through the open ends of the standpipes. A 6 foot diameter iron or steel pipe soaring into the sky would not meet with approval in terms Victorian aesthetics, so most were encased in attractive structures called water towers. Of the hundreds if not thousands of these that once dotted the skylines of many cities only seven such still exist in the United States. St Louis is extremely lucky that three of them are at the Gateway to the West http://www.builtstlouis.net/watertowers/watertowers1.html. While aboard Eureka I took pictures of the two that are in North St Louis, only a few blocks away from each other. One is the neoclassic column shaped “white tower”. The other is named for the Bissell family and is more architecturally complex.

On the far side of the city a much more exciting example exists, the Compton Hill Park Reservoir Water Tower. This tower really exemplifies how the Victorians viewed their world and the pride they took on objects or structures no matter how utilitarian. The Compton Hill tower is a lovely structure that far exceeds the needs of the system to produce a positive addition to the area’s visual appeal. Today such a structure would be built with the bare minimum. Before I get into our visit to the water tower let me tell you about the restaurant we had lunch at, for it is another St Louis gem.

When we were children if we had been good we might get rewarded with a trip to The Fatted Calfhttp://www.fattedcalfburgers.com/. This was a local chain of burger places, ah but what burger places! Decorated as an old English pub with pewter cups and dark beams the place always seemed very comfortable. The tables are thick and heavy oak. Originally the condiments were in open crockery set in slight depressions cut into the surface. Those days are long gone as current health regulations forbad such things, however the types of relish that can be applied to the burgers at the last remaining Fatted Calf are still as tangy! Located in Clayton the lone surviving Fatted Calf still delivers on atmosphere and truly awesome burgers.

The Fatted Calf is known for its flame broiled burgers. These are made to order and the kitchen is entirely visible to the customers. An impressive selection of sides are available including great fried, decent onion rings, fried mushrooms and coleslaw. The house specialty is a cheese
burger with melted soft cheddar. A couple of strips of bacon can only add to the ecstasy of the experience. We enjoyed a very wonderful lunch at this St Louis landmark. A large selection of drinks, including some adult beverages, is available. If you find yourself in the Clayton area I highly recommend stopping in an experiencing the best cheeseburger St Louis has to offer. Even if you aren’t in the area a drive of half an hour isn’t too much out of the way for a really worthy lunch or dinner.

From there we drove about twenty minutes to the Grand Avenue near Highway 44. The tower overlooks the St. Louis University Hospital campus
as well as several neighborhoods of preserved Victorian houses. The park is open and free and there is ample free parking on side-streets all around, although the park itself has no lot of  its own. Parking on the side streets is free and is within easy walking distance of the tower.

Griffon on the corner of the water tower

The Tower itself is a masterpiece of Victorian that blends Victorian art and technology in a structure as lovely as it is useful http://www.watertowerfoundation.org/home.asp. One of the greatest things about that era, one of the things I love most about it and something that should be core to VSF and the emerging Steampunk artistic movement is the fusion of form and function.

The park isn’t huge and a large part of it is taken up by the reservoir itself. This is a more modern structure than the tower and lacks
its architectural appeal. The good thing is that the tower dominates the park, the surrounding neighborhood and the skyline for many miles around. Even after over 100 years the building makes a stunning statement. The park had a very nice reflecting pond and is well kept but in no way does this compare to the landscaping found around the tower as it was originally built.

The architect Harvey Ellis http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Harvey_Ellis designed the structure. He also designed parts of St. Louis Union Station and the St. Louis City Hall, so his legacy in this city is still strong. The tower was raised late in the 19th century, being completed in 1898. It is
built in a French Romanesque style of rusticated limestone and buff brick. It is faced with terra cotta. Details include griffons and vine scroll details. The observation deck that tops the tower is reached by a spiral staircase of 198 stairs. These curve around the six foot diameter standpipe’s 130 foot height. The tower itself rises 179 feet above the park. The view from the top is amazing. Only the Gateway Arch (or a Zeppelin ride) has vistas that are better.

The tower was a major attraction during the 1904 World’s Fair. During the run of the event, located in nearby Forest Park the park and its tower drew an average of 5,000 visitors each Sunday. At the time it had a carefully landscaped area at the base. This was perhaps the high point of its existence. Over the decades technology first past it by, then the entire idea of functional systems being attractive, being objects of art and beauty and pride fell by the wayside. The tower fell into disrepair. The local activists kept the tower from being torn down during the post modern period (certainly the lowest point in design since mankind graduated from mud huts). They have managed to preserve and maintain the tower and to get it back to the point where it can safely be visited by the general public. They hope to restore rest of the park as well, giving visitors a feel of what it was like when times called for beauty in public spaces and when it was accepted, nay required for objects or structures to add to the general attractiveness of an area rather than simply be built as cheaply and quickly as possible.

To fund the operations the preservation group charges 5.00 for the experience of climbing the many, many, many steps to the top and getting the cooling breezes and stimulating views. The volunteers are from the neighborhood and really know the tower. Again it is always a positive experience to meet with people who are enthusiastic about what they are doing.

If you are looking for something to do the first Saturday of any month, or on the other days the tower is open head overt that way. You may want to go right when they open at noon and then take a late lunch at The Fatted Café (it might be easier to climb on a less full stomach and use the exercise to build up an appetite). This is a good and inexpensive way to spend an afternoon, and is well worth every minute, and every penny.