If you’ve been to downtown Fresno, you’ve probably seen the impressive architectural structure standing 109 feet high located at Fresno Street and O Street. This building is the Historic Fresno Water Tower, and has been part of our town since 1894. Over the years, the water tower has served many different purposes and still serves as a space where local businesses can thrive today.
Now known as one of Fresno’s most distinctive architectural symbols, the Fresno Water Tower was originally designed by Chicago architect George Washington Mayer. Mayer designed the tower with inspiration from the Great Chicago Fire of 1871, where the local library burned down and the water tower served as the city’s library until a new one was rebuilt. In fact, Mayers original design for the Fresno Water Tower included space for a library on the third floor. Although—as many locals know—a third floor was never actually built, the second floor just has a very high ceiling.
One of the most notable things about the tower is the American Romanesque design style. The design was partially inspired by medieval European architecture, and the building is made from a 2-foot-thick inner brick wall and a 1.2-foot-thick outer brick wall. The ceiling is made from tile—a peculiar choice for a water tower—and the inside is decorated with iron corbels. Most people notice the brick roof right away because the size of the bricks gets smaller as they reach the top of the structure, which creates a beehive effect.
Construction on the building started in 1891 and lasted about three years. The structure holds 250,000 gallons of water and served as a water tower from the time it was built in 1894 to 1963. The structure was almost constantly in use while it fulfilled this purpose for the community, however, the pumping equipment eventually became inadequate and obsolete.
Shortly after the building ceased acting as an active water tower, the building received impressive accolades. In 1971, the Fresno water tower was added to the National Register of Historic Places. One year later, the American Water Works Association designated it as an American Water Landmark.
In 1989, the Navy League and Naval Resource Center dedicated the tower to George M. Bowman for his dedicated service to the City of Fresno and as a naval officer. When you visit the tower, you will find plaques explaining Bowman’s life and various ways he gave back to the city of Fresno. The tower’s dedication took place on Independence Day approximately five years after Bowman passed away.
For a period of time after the building was no longer used as a water tower, the first floor was used as a parking meter repair facility. In 2001, the tower was renovated and the second floor was removed. This newly renovated building served as Fresno’s visitor center and was managed by the city of Fresno.
In 2014, the Fresno Art Council assumed management of the building and added an art gallery for visitors to see. However, just a few short years later, the tower was at risk of shutting down in 2017 due to a PG&E rate hike. During this time, about 3,000 people visited the water tower every year.
Like many other businesses, the tower hit another roadblock last year and had to completely shut down due to the COVID-19 pandemic. For months, there was no activity inside the building. The Fresno Art Council was able to reopen the doors in early 2021. Currently, the building is still serving as an art gallery and is planning to open a space for even more Fresno locals to enjoy—Frida’s Cafe.
Frida’s Cafe will be an indoor/outdoor dining space for downtown residents to enjoy, and should help revitalize the area since it took a hit during COVID-19. Frida’s is moving from their previous location on Fulton Ave to the water tower.
Next time you are in the area, stop by the water tower and experience the history for yourself. Both tourists and Fresno residents thoroughly enjoy this historic gem; between enjoying local art on display by the FAC or just learning more about the tower’s history, there is always something new to appreciate.
Photo Credit: Suzy Simons (email@example.com)