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City will inject funds to help restore Roland Water Tower

Long under threat of “demolition by neglect,” the historic tower is expected to get a $337,000 grant from city.

Above: The eight-sided water tower was erected in 1904-05.

Restoration of the iconic but rapidly deteriorating Roland Water Tower will take a big step forward under an unusual agreement in which the city’s water department will provide funds to help stabilize the property.

In an agreement to be ratified tomorrow by the Board of Estimates, the Department of Public Works will transfer jurisdiction of the landmark building to the Department of General Services and – more critically – offer $337,000 for the stabilization and restoration of the tower.

This figure is equal to the estimated price of demolishing the tower, a real possibility just a few years ago before local citizens began a campaign to save the tower with a panoramic view of Jones Falls Valley from its perch at Roland Avenue and University Parkway.

“I’m glad to hear it’s happening. It sounds like progress,” said Zoe Clarkwest, a member of Friends of the Roland Water Tower, which banded together in 2009 and has helped raise more than $250,000 to save the tower.

Bags of Pigeon Dung

The injection of city cash comes none too soon. Despite its listing on the National Register of Historic Places and as a City Landmark Building, the 148-foot-tall tower has long been threatened by “demolition by neglect.”

While the overall building is considered structurally sound, its upper floor, parapet and once-bright-green Spanish roof tiles have severely deteriorated. They are “in desperate need of extensive renovation,” according to the Board of Estimates’ published agenda for tomorrow’s meeting.

Artist rendering of a community park surrounding the water tower. (Hord/Caplan/Macht)

Artist rendering of a community park surrounding the water tower. (Hord/Caplan/Macht)

Last fall, 500 bags of animal excrement, mostly pigeon dung, was cleared out of the tower and the interior sealed.

The cleanup was the first phase of a plan, put forward by the Roland Park Civic League and endorsed by the city, to restore the tower, open a display room of local history inside and create a community park around the base, which is currently surrounded by a chain-link fence as a safety measure.

Philip Spevak, president of the Roland Park Civic League, said the tower’s renovation has been “dreamed of” by the community for years. “We are very fortunate for the hard work of the Roland Park Community Foundation and the Friends of the Roland Water Tower and to our elected officials from the city and the state,” he noted in an email to The Brew last night.

Tomorrow’s agreement before the spending board is the next step in the process.

Missing boards at the top of the Roland Park water tower. (Photo by Fern Shen)

Missing and rotted-out soffit boards at the top of the water tower. (Photo by Fern Shen)

Three Years to Renovate

Under a memorandum of understanding with the Bureau of Water and Wastewater, the city will transfer jurisdiction of the tower to General Services.

The agency will be given three years to start rehabilitation of the structure.

“If the rehabilitation of the [tower] does not commence and/or construction has not begun by January 31, 2016, the funds remaining in the account will be returned to the Department of Public Works and the tower will be transferred back to the DPW,” the document says.

Standpipe in the Way

The eight-sided, Italianate-styled tower was designed by William J. Fizone and built in 1904-05 by John Stack & Sons as part of the city’s network of water pumping stations. The station was closed in 1930 when the city switched to reservoirs to provide public water.

Copper-plated plaque commemorating the building of the tower. (Photo by Fern Shen)

Copper-plated plaque commemorating the tower’s construction. (Photo by Fern Shen)

Located at one of the highest points in the city, the tower has a commanding view of several historic communities, including Hoes Heights, Hampden and Roland Park and, across the Jones Falls Valley, Woodberry and both Druid Hill and Cylburn parks.

Restoring the tower is expected to cost $900,000 and the display room and park are expected to cost another $300,000 to $600,000.

Spevak has expressed optimism that the community can raise up to $1.4 million.

One hope of the citizen groups is to reopen the top floor for public observation.

That prospect is dimmed by the existence of a large standpipe (the original water tower) inside the building, which would have to be dismantled.

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