Making good use of Water Tower, Commission formed to give purpose to historical landmark
It was built in 1883 as part of the old reservoir that provided water for Hoboken and neighboring municipalities, and at the time it was one of only a few facilities in the world that brought water above ground. It has remained in the same spot since then, standing tall and proud over Park Avenue in Weehawken, with its historical landmark status preserved only after a lengthy battle ensued between a civic-minded committee who wanted to save it and a land developer who wanted to introduce it to a wrecking ball. For the past 20 years, the famed Weehawken Water Tower, located next to the Pathmark, has been empty, with no real practical purpose or use. One Weehawken resident recently called the tower "The world's largest bird cage" because pigeons gain access through the broken windows at the top and nest there. "Ever since I've been here, we've always wondered, 'Will there ever be a practical use for the Water Tower,'" Weehawken Mayor Richard Turner said. "It was declared a national landmark in 1980, but nothing has been done with it since." In 1989, an extensive study was conducted by then-Weehawken resident Roger Sheppard entitled "A Study for the Adequate Re-Use of a Landmark of Industrial Architecture," to see whether something practical could be done with the tower. "At the time, the study said that it would cost $1.5 million to put heat and air conditioning in there, to put a humidifier and any other conversion," Turner said. "It was just too costly to make the necessary renovations. For some reason then, nothing was done." However, Turner firmly believes that the time is now to find a use for the Water Tower. With a recent program instituted, complete with a $100 million appropriation by Gov. Christie Whitman, to save open space, urban parks and historic preservations throughout the state, Turner thinks that Weehawken can secure a chunk of that money to fix up and give use to the Tower. "The funding may be there," Turner said. "And it is a landmark, so it fits under the category. It make take a few years, but it's time to get it going now. If the Tower is structurally good, then we want to put [it] to good use." Keeping that in mind, Turner and the township council recently started to form a special committee, properly called the Water Tower Committee, which will examine the opportunities to receive funding to make improvements to the Tower. Alane Finnerty, who works in the township's housing department, has been selected to serve as the committee's executive director. Other committee members who were appointed include Ellen Gaulkin, attorney Margaret Murphy, Councilwoman Rosemary Lavagnino and historic construction expert John Estes. Eventually, there will be other members that will serve on the board, but Turner has yet to secure the other two volunteers. Gaulkin, who was a member in 1979 of the Weehawken Environmental Committee, which helped to save the tower from demolition, is pleased to once again be involved in the battle to help save Weehawken's most recognizable architectural structure. "It's a wonderful building that we've grown to love," Gaulkin said. "It has a wonderful presence that is emblematic of Weehawken. And we feel like it's ours. We feel that it's very pretty and worth saving. It's recognized as a special place, but it's sorely in need of repairs and it needs to be kept up, because even though it has a historical preservation title, it could be demolished if it's causing a danger. We're fearful that things could get bad that it could get taken away from us." The Tower is currently owned by the company that owns the adjacent Tower Plaza Mall, which has always had the obligation to maintain the Tower. However, Turner is hopeful that the owners of the Tower Plaza Mall, which is under new management, will work out an arrangement to make improvements to the Tower with the new programs. Turner said that the improvements to Water Tower will eventually serve as the centerpiece to major improvements planned for all of Park Avenue. "The Water Tower will be a prelude to other improvements on Park Avenue," Turner said. "For example, we plan on putting a garden in an adjacent lot next to the Tower. We have received interest from local organizations, such as Stevens Tech, who would be willing to help to think of a good use. Not just putting the Tower to use, but to try to open the viewing stand, which would provide a fine view of Manhattan, the Hudson River and below." Fascinating facts There are some interesting facts about the Water Tower that not a lot of people realize. For one, there is a 65-ton tank inside the tower that could hold 165,000 gallons of water. There also are an office and two apartments that were once the residences of the Water Tower manager. "It's amazing to think that people actually had faith, living in their homes below such a gigantic tank," Gaulkin said. Turner said that he has faith in the committee to seek funding to make the improvements. "They will develop any funding source that they see fit," Turner said. "Non-profit organizations, government funds, donations from private corporations. It's a very opportune time to come up with federal and state grants. For 20 years, it's just sat there with nothing going on. Now, we want to make it the centerpiece of Park Avenue." Turner said that the committee is still working on what the practical use would be, whether it would house possible office space or would be strictly for museum purposes and as a scenic viewing location. "There are all kinds of options that we will look into," Turner said. "There are five floors that could be used for general offices. As long as we come up with some use and still keep it as historic as possible." Either way, Gaulkin is excited to help preserve Weehawken's centerpiece. "Although the interior has become quite deteriorated, we feel that it can be done," Gaulkin said. "And that's the purpose of the committee."