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The North Point Water Tower - A Milwaukee Icon

photo of North Point Tower with red maple leavesOver 1,900 history buffs visited the tower during Doors Open 2019. Countless fans enoyed a virtual experience Sept. 26 - Oct. 11, 2020.

Travel back in time to 1874 when you step through the door into the 14-foot-wide tower. Visitors may be surprised to learn the tower did not store water or house fairies. Walk around the 4’wide, 135’ tall iron standpipe in the middle of the tower. If you lean in close, you can see all the way to the top.

The iconic North Point Water Tower, on the bluff above Lake Michigan, is symbolic of 145 years of service by the Milwaukee Water Works. It was one of the principal works in the original water supply system that  provided Milwaukee with 16 million gallons of water a day. (The Milwaukee Water Works today pumps approximately 100 million gallons per day.)

The Victorian Gothic-style tower is a decorative cover over an open standpipe that absorbed pulsations of water from steam engines in the pumping station below the hill. The tower was first placed in service on September 14, 1874, when the two North Point Pumping Station pumps first drew water from Lake Michigan. The water moved through an underwater crib and a 36-inch-diameter, 2,100-foot-long intake pipe, and up the bluff into the water tower standpipe. From the top of the bluff, the water surged into a 21-million-gallon reservoir and throughout a 58-mile distribution system under the growing city.  

Electricity replaced steam in 1963 and the standpipe was taken out of active service. 

The fanciful and charming structure was designed by architect Charles A. Gombert. It is similar in design to the Chicago Water Tower, but the North Point Water Tower is four years younger and 21 feet taller, at 175 feet. The tower is built of cream-colored cut limestone from the Hiram and Horace Story Quarry (later the site of Milwaukee County Stadium and now Miller Park.) The exterior is made of Cream City Brick and trimmed with dressed limestone.

"Can we climb the stairway inside?" For safety and insurance requirements, the staircase is used only for maintenance. Using 1874 specifications, the 213-step steel staircase was not designed to support heavy traffic or provide for safety. It's wide enough for one person to perform any necessary maintenance. John Gurda notes in his book "A City Built on Water," that Milwaukeeans worked six-day-weeks in the 1870s with little time for recreational tower climbing. You can virtually "climb the stairway" by paging through the series of photos below.

The tower is located at 2288 N. Lake Dr. at East North Avenue. 

A three-year exterior and interior restoration was completed in June 2018. Read more about the project to the right on this page.

The tower has been recognized with several historic designations:plaque showing historic designation as Wisconsin State Historical Site

  • Official Landmark of the City of Milwaukee; designated by the Milwaukee Landmark Commission on September 11, 1968
  • American Water Landmark Award from the American Water Works Association on May 19, 1969
  • In 1969, the North Point Water Tower was selected as an important example of our architectural heritage by the Historic American Building Survey conducted by the National Park Service in collaboration with the American Institute of Architects. In recognition of its value, a record was placed in the Library of Congress.
  • Residents formed a Water Tower Landmark Trust, Inc., “Dedicated to the preservation of our unique residential area” and held a recognition ceremony at the tower on October 20, 1973.
  • National Register of Historic Places designation in 1973
  • Wisconsin State Historical Site; designated by the Board of Curators of the Wisconsin State Historical Society in collaboration with the Milwaukee County Historical Society on October 24, 1973. A marker was set in place at the tower on December 22, 1973.
  • City of Milwaukee Historic Designation in 1986old black and white photo of the tower with cows grazing nearby

"By virtue of its appearance and its historical association, it is symbolic of Milwaukee’s traditionally bountiful water supply. This structure possesses the integrity of original location, original workmanship, and many intangible elements of feeling and association extending back into the history of the City of Milwaukee."
-- Former MWW Superintendent Elmer W. Becker, 1974

A View From the Top

These are photos taken by retired MWW Water Plant Maintenance Supervisor John Schmidt. You will notice his boots in the photos as he climbed the 213-step steel staircase. We hope you enjoy the view from the top.

Climb the Tower


The iconic North Point Tower overlooks Lake Michigan from the east end of North Avenue


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2018 Interior Restoration Completed
Inspections had found the original iron standpipe, four feet in diameter and 120 feet tall, was corroded and required reinforcement so it would not fall and break through the decorative brick walls of the tower.large green vertical pipe
A metal connection was installed between the riser pipe and a new reinforcing collar. A connection was installed between the existing joists and new concrete. Permeable stone fill was placed to the top of the existing abandoned water mains in the lower level and the concrete floor has been poured at the lower level.

Reinforcing angles and hardware to repair the stair treads on the interior staircase were installed and reinforced as necessary for maintenance access. The original steel staircase was not designed to 21st Century safety and access codes for public climbing. It has been preserved but not restored. For liability reasons, only City of Milwaukee employees performing maintenance may climb the stairs. Steel plates were fabricated for a floor at the entrance level. The general contractor followed plans approved by the State Historic Preservation Office.

Plans call for returning the weather vane to the roof when roofing restoration and repair is designed and contracted. However, the City of Milwaukee Budget Office could not justify spending the estimated $1 million for this work in the 2019 DPW Capital Budget so the project awaits funding. Read the August 2018 North Point Tower Roof Condition Report.  

Restoration List click for detail

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