A casual visitor to North Park could easily mistake the 101-foot-tall bullet-shaped structure near the lodge pavilion for just a rusted, abandoned curiosity.
Built during project progress management in 1937, cylindrical steel tanks along Northridge Road—officially known as the Allegheny County North Park Water System Riser—used to provide the park with 300,000 gallons of water.
But it’s much more than that.
Before it was closed by Allegheny County in the early 1970s, as it was deteriorating and becoming dangerous, visitors could climb 154 stairs and spiral along the outside of the 25-foot-diameter tank to the observation deck.
Dome-covered viewing platform completed Terrazzo floors and mosaics depicting constellations and ornate metal medallions showing compass points.
From the vantage point at 1,361 feet above sea level, on a clear day, the views of North Mountain are panoramic, with features of the Pittsburgh skyline, such as Oakland’s Cathedral of Learning and the American Steel Tower in the heart of the city.
Over the past few years, park stakeholders have struggled to find ways to restore the tower and open the observation deck to the public.
Effort will pay off quickly.
Allegheny County Executive Rich Fitzgerald announced Friday that a design contract has been awarded to transform the tank into an observation tower.
“This has been on our project list for a long time because of its proximity to the lodge, one of North Park’s most used amenities, and because of the views it offers,” Fitzgerald said.
“This project is a perfect example of the opportunity that exists, thanks to the excellent work of the Park Foundation and its board, to support and fund otherwise impossible projects,” he said.
The Allegheny County Parks Foundation has received a $500,000 grant from the Babcock Charitable Trust, the bulk of which will be used to restore the water tower, said Caren Glotfelty, the foundation’s chief executive.
“Funding has been an issue in previous attempts to restore the tower,” she said. “While not all of this grant is for the tower, most of it is. So I think we can finally see this project completed.”
Glotfelty noted that the grant will require matching funds from the county.
Avid users of the park say the tower is an important asset to protect.
“North Park is full of hidden gems that are rotting,” said Dominic Gambino, 70, a member of the North Park Friends Council advocacy group and an avid mountain biker who uses the park regularly.
“But of all the features, the water tower is the most iconic because it can be seen from almost anywhere in the park. It’s a real focal point. But it’s just sitting there rusting, which is a shame.”
Gambino admitted that when he was in his 60s, he climbed the fence that closed the stairs in order to climb up to the observation deck, which he described as an “exhilarating experience”. I’ve never been on stairs like this – you feel like you’re reaching the top every time, only to realize there’s more to go. It’s too rushed. “
Gambino said the views were spectacular and the ornate decor on the deck “was worth walking up the steps to see.”
Allegheny County Police are stationed in the park and regularly patrol the area around the water tower. In 2016, police issued a warning to keep people away from the tower after nine teenagers were charged with defiance for entering steps by bypassing a locked steel door.
The last time it was featured on the deck was in 2010, when studio DreamWorks Productions donated $10,000 to Allegheny County to restore the terrazzo floors so the filmmakers could finish the sci-fi movie “I Am Number Four” Scenes.
Fitzgerald’s office said the structure would require an extensive structural assessment to ensure it was safe to open to the public.
It is expected that the inside and outside of the tank will need to be sandblasted and repainted to prevent rust. Additionally, an environmental remediation plan may need to be developed for the soil surrounding the tower.
The balustrades overlooking the stairs and the dome will also feature features that will allow them to comply with current building codes and ensure public safety, the county administrator’s office said.
One of the concerns raised about reopening the tower to the public is safety, Glotfelty said.
“We certainly don’t want people falling or jumping, so that’s going to be a major issue,” she said. “So there may be a need to restrict access. But whatever the concerns, I don’t think they can’t be addressed when the project is designed.”
Margaret McGlumphy of Pine said the tower has fond memories and she hopes the county will find a way to restore it and get people to use it again.
“In the 1960s, my dad worked for the US Postal Service, and they would rent the North Park Lodge for company picnics,” said McGrenfey, 69. “We used to go to the observation deck for views and photos.”
She said photos of the tower that she has posted on social media over the years “always get a lot of comments from people who miss it and others who want to learn more about its history and why it’s not open to the public.”
While McGrunphy would like to see the tower eventually reopen to the public, protecting it should be a priority.
“The appearance is really starting to look degraded,” she said. “The lack of attention people paid to it is really starting to show,” she said.
While the riser has yet to receive any form of formal historical recognition, proponents of preserving it point out that it was built at the same time as the nearby cottage building, which was designed by renowned architect Henry Hornbostel.
Hornbostel has designed nearly two dozen buildings listed on the National Register of Historic Places, including some of Pittsburgh’s most recognizable buildings, such as the City and County Building in downtown, the Soldiers and Sailors Memorial in Oakland, and the Rodef Shalom Temple in Shadyside.
Hornbostel was the county’s park superintendent when the water tower was designed and built, and his name appears on the plaque at the entrance to the stairs.
Tony LaRussa is a staff writer for Tribune-Review. You can contact Tony at 724-772-6368, [email protected] or via Twitter .
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