Over 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:
- 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 1986
"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
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.