Saturday, December 7, 2019

Flashback 2010: Today's outcast is tomorrow's icon

     Some delinquent scrawled graffiti on the bottom of the Northbrook water tower last week. Maybe they'd have thought twice before doing that if they knew the edifice's place in architectural history. There's much more to it than "SAVE FERRIS," as I discovered in this 2010 column.

     When we bought our home in the leafy suburban paradise of Northbrook—can it be?—10 years ago this June, third on my list of gut-twisting worries, right after all the urgent repairs needed and the busy train tracks right across the street, was the enormous water tower practically in the backyard.
     The thing is huge, and while not quite as menacing as, say, an atomic power plant cooling tower, it isn't something that might appeal to future buyers either. "Oh honey, look, it has that lovely humongous water tower in the backyard. Let's get it!"
     The 135-foot tall tower is, by my count, 150 paces from my yard. But the house is a block from the elementary school and a block from the train station. So I deemed the tower an acceptable eyesore.
     Cut to last month, when the village announced it will be building a new water tower, twice as capacious, over by the expressway.
     Tearing down the old tower will improve whatever property values remain after the Great Housing Bubble popped. But did I rejoice?
     Of course not.
     Human nature being what it is, I felt a surprising flutter of propriety concern—what would become of our water tower? A neighbor I quizzed, amazingly, feels the same. As do my boys.
     Not that we're trying to save it. Who would try to save an old water tower? Of course, this is no ordinary water tower—this one has a cameo in "Ferris Bueller's Day Off," with "SAVE FERRIS" painted on the side. 

     Does that matter? Does it matter that the thing has a name? A Horton Waterspheroid, constructed in 1954, the first of 2,400 built nationwide by the Chicago Bridge & Iron Co?
     If I'm going to make a case for saving it—and I'm not; this is purely an intellectual exercise—I would frame my argument, not in historic, but aesthetic terms. Anyone familiar with the loss of architectural treasures knows that every single one was torn down because people—not everybody, but enough—failed to recognize them as lovely or important.
     Tastes shift—during the modernist mania after World War II, when we fell in love with sleek, unadorned expanses of glass and steel, it was easy to view the ornate Victorian buildings that we all appreciate so much now as over-ornamented monstrosities. So down went the Stock Exchange Building and the Garrick Theatre and such.
     Sometimes those in charge were merely philistines. We should always remember that the boors running the Chicago Theological Seminary in the 1950s were about to tear down Frank Lloyd Wright's sublime Robie House to make way for a dorm when saner heads rushed in.
     I can imagine a day in our sleek, iPod and electric car future when a waterspheroid suddenly seems prescient and monumental and beautiful.


     That's certainly how it was presented at the time.
     "The pleasing symmetry of a Horton Watersphere is fast becoming a symbol of progress, utility and good water service," touted an ad in the April 1955 issue of American City magazine. Other ads called it "striking" and "attractive."
     Someday, when Google starts buying up old water towers and jamming them with massive zettaflop memory banks and servers and routing switches, we might feel smart having kept it. Or we could mirror the tower and pay Anish Kapoor to sign the bottom—it would outshine the Bean in Millennium Park.
     I sat down with village officials in charge of public works, who are approaching this as a purely practical matter: What does it cost to keep and what does it cost to tear down?
     And rightly so. The math is surprising. I would have guessed that the tower would be far cheaper to paint every decade than to demolish, but it's the reverse; far more expensive to paint, by a factor of ten—$240,000 when it was last painted, in 2000, and probably $300,000 by now, compared with an estimated $25,000 to demolish (a cost lessened by selling scrap steel from the tower, which weighs about a quarter of a million pounds).
     And yes, they sometimes demolish a water tower by felling it like a tree, or blowing it up, or cutting it apart with hydraulic shears.
     The village hasn't made a decision yet.
     "We're still not to that point," said Kelly Hamill, assistant director of public works in Northbrook. "We've got a contract with the consultant."
     In the meantime, I've learned two things: first, to cast a newly appreciative eye on Horton, as I call him, glowing golden in the evening sun, filling my kitchen window.
     And second—and this really was a surprise—Northbrook, alone among the interior Chicago suburbs, draws its own water from Lake Michigan and treats it, independently. (Adding a bit more chlorine than the city. "We err on the cautious side," said Ken Gardner, the water utilities superintendent, a sentiment that could be our village motto.)
     My bet is that the old tower goes. And while it'll be missed, for a while, the truth is that life goes on. The Chicago Bridge & Iron Company is still in existence, for example, but now headquartered near Houston, Texas. Tempora mutantur, nos et mutamur in illis -- the times change, and we change with them.


     When I was winding up my conversation with Ken Gardner, he asked if I wanted to know about the strangest call he's gotten in his 36 years with the village. I did.
     "Somebody once phoned us and asked if we could adjust the water temperature. Because they were having trouble getting hot water."
               —Originally published in the Sun-Times, Jan. 13, 2010

1 comment:

  1. Apparently Northbrook has 2 water towers now with an ongoing discussion about whether to repaint "SAVE FERRIS" on the old one in order to stimulate more tourism by Ferris Bueller fans, who already flock to the suburb to a mixed reaction by Northbrook residents, "She said that other spots along the Hughes trail are private homes, where residents often don't want visitors.
    "'But they always include it on their listing when they're selling the house,' she said." Gina Speckman, Northbrook Star, October 6, 2016.


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