The 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 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 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 last spring.
The tower has been recognized by the Milwaukee Landmarks Commission (1968), the Historic American Building Survey (1969), National Landmark of the American Water Works Association (1969), National Register of Historic Places (1973), and City of Milwaukee Historic Designation (1986).
The 213-step steel staircase is not large or strong enough to support heavy traffic. As John Gurda notes, Milwaukeeans worked six-day weeks in the 1870s; there was little time for tower climbing. Tour the stairway online at milwaukee.gov.water
As visitors step into the 14-foot-wide tower, they will stand face-to-face with a looming, 120-foot-tall iron pipe that was part of a steam engine system to pump Lake Michigan water for fire suppression and drinking.