The Water Tower and nearby pumping station were the only two buildings in downtown Chicago that survived the Great Chicago Fire of 1871 which razed the whole city to the ground.
Constructed in 1869 using big limestone blocks, the Chicago Water Tower, with all its small Neo-Gothic towers, resembles more of a tiny European medieval castle than a water tower. It was designed by architect William W. Boyington and houses a forty-meter-tall standpipe which was used to equalize the pressure of the water pumped from the adjacent pumping station. The tower reaches a height of 154 feet or 47 meters and towered over all the neighboring buildings. Today it is dwarfed by the many skyscrapers surrounding the tower.
The pumping system was built to provide the city with clean water, pumped from intake bins that were located in Michigan Lake. Until then, the city retrieved water from basins along the shoreline which were polluted with water from the Chicago River, which at the time was in fact used as an industrial sewage.
The plan was not a great success, since the bins eventually became polluted as well. The problem was only solved at the end of the nineteenth century after the direction of the Chicago river was reversed. The tower became functionally obsolete in 1906.
Since its survival of the Great Fire, the Water Tower became one of the city’s most famous icons, as it symbolized Chicago’s resilience. It was threatened with demolition several times – in 1906, 1918 and 1948 – but it was saved each time thanks to a public outcry. The tower was eventually restored in 1962.
In May 1969, during the year of its centennial anniversary, the Chicago Water Tower was selected by the American Water Works Association to be the first American Water Landmark.
Today, the tower is one of the most important historic attractions in Chicago. It houses a gallery which showcases works from local photographers.