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Havanans are Looking Up

Old water tower, at 133 years and counting, may have tourism potential as Mason County’s own little Eiffel
by Nick Vlahos | Photos by Ron Johnson |
2022-10_hdr_0010_11_havanans-looking-up

The 133-year-old water tower that stands at Main and Pearl streets in Havana really isn’t a water tower anymore. For the past decade, it hasn’t stored water.

But the structure helps store a lot of memories for longtime residents of this Illinois River city about 45 miles southwest of Peoria. According to city officials and others, the tower also might harbor economic potential.

Mayor Brenda Stadsholt, left, Brenda Davenport-Fornoff, the city economic development coordinator, and Rick Noble, a local artist and former city employee, stand near the Havana water tower.

Tourism is part of the allure. Almost 30 years ago, through the work of some diligent volunteers, the tower was listed on the National Register of Historic Places.

But the brick-and-steel structure also is a point of pride among the 3,000 or so Havana residents. An 86-foot-tall point of pride, to be precise.

“It’s kind of iconic to Havana,” said Brenda Davenport-Fornoff, the community’s   economic development coordinator. “It’s that landmark. You know kind of where everything is (in town) based on that.”

Said Havana Mayor Brenda Stadsholt: “Coming to work every day, I love seeing it.”

It’s hard to miss.

Almost 18 feet wide at its base, the tapered tower stands on a hill that overlooks the downtown area of the Mason County seat. Most of the five-story octagonal structure is made of brick. Former city employee Rick Noble, who is among Havana’s most fervent water tower advocates, believes the brick may have been manufactured locally, given its softness, a possible byproduct of Mason County’s sandy soil. A brick kiln was operating in Havana in 1889, when the tower was built to help afford Havana adequate fire protection.

That was the same year the Eiffel Tower in Paris was completed, Noble noted.

Bricks ascend five stories to a 14½-foot base. Atop that platform, 50 feet up, sits a 50,000-gallon steel storage tank, 36 feet in height.

The top of the tank was open to the sky until the 1950s, when a flat metal roof was added. A cone-shaped roof matching the original tower blueprints replaced it.

“It was an old, silver flat-top tank when I first saw it as a kid,” said Jewel Bucy, the 71-year-old Havana public works director. “That thing’s been there my whole life, and it was one of those iconic things that you love to see, that old silver water tower sitting up there. It was pretty cool.”

According to city documents, the F.W. Raider firm of St. Louis designed the tower, which has a lighthouse architectural style. “There’s only a couple of those around,” said Noble.

Similar structures were built in the late 19th century in three other central Illinois communities. Among them was the Woodford County village of Benson, where the tower has since been demolished.

In the late 1980s, it appeared a similar fate might befall Havana’s tower, which was in disrepair. Noble was among those who helped save it, in part by finding the original blueprints, then buried among old City Hall documents.  

“It’s like, ‘You can’t tear this down,’” said Noble, who also leads the Mason County Arts Council. “This is a historic thing in the state, so we need to use that as a significant thing for the community.”

The Havana water tower was built in 1889.

The tower’s current structural state is adequate, said Bucy. But the tank was drained in 2012 because of stability worries. A modern, 300,000-gallon tower stands elsewhere in town.

Engineers have told the city that full tower restoration, including tuckpointing, would cost about $1.25 million. “It’s something that we can’t just fork out and do,” said Bucy.

LANDMARKS ILLINOIS LISTED THE TOWER AMONG
THE STATE’S MOST ENDANGERED
HISTORIC PLACES IN 2021.

Landmarks Illinois listed the tower among the state’s most endangered historic places in 2021. The organization also awarded the city a $2,500 grant, which was used to repair retaining walls surrounding the tower property. Green Valley-based artist Luke Kinzler painted a mural on them.

No active fundraising is taking place, said city officials, but the tower does attract plenty of non-monetary interest inside and outside Havana. National Register placement has helped lure tourists from as far as Australia. Passenger riverboats that dock regularly at Havana also provide a source of interest. Stadsholt said it’s common to see visitors photographing themselves in front of the tower.

The locals have noticed, evidently.

“Even when it gets slightly mentioned that something might happen to the water tower … they do not want anything to happen,” Davenport-Fornoff said.

The tower fits with municipal attempts to brand Havana as a regional destination for art, music and history. To that end, the first phase of a multi-year downtown revitalization program was completed in 2020.

“One more piece of the puzzle,” Davenport-Fornoff said about the old tower.

It’s possible the federal Infrastructure Investment and Jobs Act approved last year might be a source of funding for future tower work, per Landmarks Illinois. Restoration could include the inner, staggered staircase that leads to the top of the bricks.

Stadsholt and Noble climbed the staircase years ago, when it was safer.

Noble said he could see as far as Dickson Mounds State Museum, about seven miles away.

The mayor might see farther than that.

Havana water tower silhouetted over a blue sky with clouds

IT’S A POINT OF PRIDE … AN 86-FOOT-TALL POINT
OF PRIDE FOR HAVANA RESIDENTS

“The view is unbelievable. … If we could get a grant and really make that a tourist attraction, then I guess we could say it was similar to the Eiffel Tower. Serve champagne or something,” Stadsholt said with a laugh.

Nick Vlahos

Nick Vlahos

is a longtime Peoria print journalist and a regular contributor to Peoria Magazine.
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