By Katherine Hon | Past Matters
The words are now cast in bronze. In 1924, a riveted steel tank raised on 12 steel girders high above San Diego’s early streetcar suburbs held more than one million gallons of water for a growing city. Long recognized as a neighborhood icon, the University Heights Elevated Tank — commonly called the North Park Water Tower — was proclaimed a Local Historic Civil Engineering Landmark by the American Society of Civil Engineers (ASCE) in a ceremony on Nov. 5, 2015.
At the ceremony, the elegant plaque explaining the water tower’s significance was entrusted by ASCE to the North Park Historical Society (NPHS) for safekeeping until a suitable monument is constructed where the plaque can be installed.
ASCE is a national professional engineering organization. The San Diego section, which is celebrating its centennial this year, selected the water tower for honors due to its robust and unique design, towering presence and contribution to San Diego’s early urban growth. This designation adds to the water tower’s national recognition in 2013 when NPHS achieved listing of the structure on the National Register of Historic Places.
Towering 140 feet above the west end of El Cajon Boulevard, the structure can be seen for miles from its location near the corner of Howard Avenue and Idaho Street. A rare example of early-20th century technology for supplying water at adequate pressure, the water tower held 1.2 million gallons of potable water until the 1990s. (In modern North Park terms, that is roughly equivalent to 39,000 barrels of beer.) Without municipal water for fire protection and commercial and domestic uses, development of University Heights, North Park and Hillcrest — and other streetcar suburbs expanding from downtown San Diego in the early 1900s — could have stopped.
San Diego county and city officials including County Supervisor Ron Roberts, City Councilmember Todd Gloria and City Public Utilities Department Director Halla Razak joined ASCE, NPHS and El Cajon Boulevard Business Improvement Association (BIA) at the plaque dedication ceremony in view of the water tower at North Park Community Park.
“As kids, seeing the North Park Water Tower was magic,” Roberts said. “Its appearance meant you were near the Palisade Gardens roller rink, Carnation ice cream parlor, fantastic park and in for a day of fun. I’m pleased future generations will continue to have the tower as a reference point in the sky, along with this great new historical plaque on the ground.”
“The North Park Water Tower is a landmark worthy of this honor from the American Society of Civil Engineers,” Gloria said. “I am proud that this year’s city budget included over $500,000 to preserve the tower and ensure it remains a feature in our mid-city skyline.”
Razak said that many city facilities don’t live as long as the 91-year-old water tower, and assured the crowd that it is here to stay. She later reflected, “It was great to hear the memories community members have of this landmark. Glad to participate in making history for future generations.”
Tootie Thomas, president of El Cajon Boulevard BIA, eloquently praised the water tower as an iconic marker of time and place that presides over the “Cool-evard” and is the beacon of a new century.
Mark Webb, ASCE San Diego section president, noted that the water tower is joining a prestigious list of landmarks designated by ASCE, including the Georgia Street Bridge, Cabrillo Bridge, Hotel del Coronado and Sweetwater Dam.
Steve Hon, NPHS president, said historical society members are working with public art consultant Gail Goldman to develop concepts for an installation that incorporates informational, educational and artistic elements to tell the story of the water tower and surrounding historical water facilities in an engaging way.
Another special attendee at the ceremony was Gary Hogue, who grew up in the direct shadow of the water tower in a house at Howard Avenue and Idaho Street, earned his civil engineering degree at San Diego State University, and then worked for the city of San Diego in water operations from 1971 until retiring in 2005. An avid hiker, Hogue noted that the water tower is visible from the top of Cowles Mountain, more than seven miles away. For him, the water tower has always been a community landmark, and he is gratified to see it recognized by civil engineers for its many years of service to the city.
—Katherine Hon is the secretary of the North Park Historical Society. Reach her at firstname.lastname@example.org or 619-294-8990.