Located near City Hall, at Fresno and O Streets in downtown Fresno you’ll find the castle-shaped Old Fresno Water Tower, standing at 109 feet high. It’s the most iconic structure in Fresno because of its unique architectural design and history. The tower is constructed with red brick, each layer smaller than the one below it, creating a beehive effect.
In 1891, George Washington Maher, a Chicago architect, was commissioned to design Fresno’s water tower. His design was influenced by the Great Chicago Fire of 1871, which sadly destroyed the Chicago Public Library. The structure is an example of American Romanesque architecture, which emphasizes the Classical Roman arch as its dominant feature. Maher’s original design intended for a library and a third floor to be built within the tower, but neither was accomplished. Maher did finish the project in 1894, and the tower remained in use until 1963 when its pumping equipment had become inadequate. The water tower was added to the National Register of Historic Places on October 14, 1971.
Since 2001, the water tower has served as a visitors’ center. It hasn’t been entirely smooth sailing for the tower, though, in 2017, it was at risk of closing. When a PG&E rate hike left the tower $8,000 short, the Fresno Arts Council came through and took over the city landmark. Even though volunteers and a part-time manager staff the tower, the Fresno Arts Council reported that it costs just under $20,000 to run the water tower every year.
As a visitors’ center, the tower was remodeled and remains Fresno’s most distinctive and enduring architectural symbol today. About 3,000 people visit the tower every year and water tower enthusiasts (yes, it’s a real thing) come from all over the world to see it. Outside the tower is a dedication plaque, to George M. Bowman, who died in 1984. This water tower is dedicated to Bowman for his thirty-six years of dedicated service to the city of Fresno and for his accomplishments as a naval officer. He also was the city’s first chief engineer, became the general manager of the Water Department, designed innovative electrical systems for street lighting, several well known public buildings, and Chandler Air Field.
Earlier this year, the tower made news when Red-Tailed Hawk hatchlings were born atop the water tower.
Whether you’re visiting Fresno for the first time or you are a longtime resident who has never stopped at the tower, you’re in for a treat! It’s a historical gem that is a feast for the eyes and even boasts an art gallery with local artist’s work and a gift shop with souvenirs.