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The North Point Tower - A Milwaukee Icon

photo of North Point Tower with red maple leavesThe iconic North Point Tower on the bluff above Lake Michigan is symbolic of 144 years of service by Milwaukee’s water utility. It was part of the first Milwaukee Water Works in 1874 that began pumping lake water and later provided treated drinking water. The tower is actually a decorative cover over an open standpipe that absorbed pulsations of water from steam engines in the pumping station below the hill. Electricity replaced steam in 1963 and the standpipe was no longer used. 

The tower is located on the city's east side at 2288 N. Lake Dr. at North Avenue. 

The fanciful and charming Victorian Gothic style structure was designed by architect Charles A. Gombert. The design is similar to the Chicago Water Tower, but the Milwaukee tower is four years younger and 21 feet taller at 175 feet. The tower is executed in cream-colored Wauwatosa cut limestone, its rock-faced walls backed with Milwaukee Cream City Brick and trimmed with dressed limestone. A three-year exterior and interior restoration was completed in June 2018. Read more about the project to the right on this page.

Our most-asked question about the tower is "Can we climb the stairway inside?" Using 1874 specifications, the 213-step steel staircase was not designed to support heavy traffic, but only large enough for one person performing any necessary maintenance. As John Gurda notes in his book "A City Built on Water," Milwaukeeans worked six-day weeks in the 1870s. They had little time for tower climbing. You can "climb the stairway" through a series of photos below.

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 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. The 213-step steel staircase is not large enough or strong enough to hold and support heavy traffic. We hope you enjoy the view from the top.

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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