The Shape of Water Towers: An Engineering History

See how many design and engineering phases water tower construction has gone through since the late 1800s

The Shape of Water Towers: An Engineering History

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For the most part, you don’t see too many automobiles that are more than 20 years old unless you come across a Frog Follies show. As influential as the Model T was in the 20th century, the classic car just doesn’t share the roads with Toyota Corollas or Ford F-150s.

Much like automobiles, the shapes and styles of water tanks and towers have changed over the years as technology advanced. Older styles of water towers still dot the American landscape, although, as with the Model T, some of those older styles are no longer fabricated. 

Early days

Early tanks were elevated, harnessing gravity to provide enough water pressure for potable use or fire protection. Standpipes were popular water storage structures in the latter half of the 1800s through the early 1900s, and that type is still in use today.

These long, skinny and legless towers were adjacent to pump stations in the old days. The standpipes helped supply sufficient water pressure to deliver the liquid for fire protection or drinking water.

Mixing art and functionality, engineers started designing standpipes that would blend in with the landscape, and ornate designs also were fashionable.

A prominent example is the Chicago Water Tower, which was built in 1869 to house a water pump that drew water from Lake Michigan. This architectural marvel is now a Chicago Office of Tourism art gallery, displaying works of local artists, photographers and filmmakers.

A standpipe water tower
A standpipe water tower

As the 19th century ended, improvements in steel construction made metal the material of choice to construct water tanks. Perhaps the most whimsically nicknamed type of steel tank is the Witch’s Hat.

These eye-catching structures have hemispherical bottoms and conical roofs that resemble the hats worn by sorcerers. The iconic Warner Bros. Studios Water Tower is a riveted witch’s hat built in 1927. Commonplace in the early 20th century, riveted tanks are reminiscent of the Tin Man’s head from The Wizard of Oz. Welding overtook riveting after WWII and is still the most common practice. Welding metal gives it a much smoother appearance as opposed to riveting.

Other advancements took place earlier. George T. Horton patented an ellipsoidal bottom tank in 1907. His design combined the best attributes of hemispherical bottom tanks and flat bottom tanks, which were the two types that had dominated the industry (Mathis, 2012). His design was intended to revolutionize supplying water to railway engines, but the design’s functionality proved beneficial for other types of water tanks as well. 

Eye-catching shapes

Spheres are perfectly round, like a golf ball or basketball, while spheroids or ellipsoids are more football shaped. Single pedestal tanks can support either a sphere or spheroid water storage container, and spheroids became more popular in the 1960s (Kempe, 2006). 

Sightseers and pop culture fans traveling along I-85 between Charlotte, North Carolina, and Atlanta, Georgia, will often pose to take a selfie with the Peachoid — an orange and yellow spheroid water tower that resembles a peach. Located in Gaffney, South Carolina, near the North Carolina border, the peach has been an attention grabber since it was built in 1981. The Peachoid was featured in the Netflix show House of Cards, adding to its notoriety.

Ever see a water tank that looked like a giant flashlight? That would be a fluted column tank, which is also known as a hydropillar tank. These types of tanks are comprised of a steel, fluted pedestal that supports a steel container. These large tanks offer high storage capacities.

Motorists traveling on I-75 or I-71 in northern Kentucky are greeted by a folksy red-and-white single fluted column tower with the words “Florence Y’all” painted on it.  For people traveling south from Cincinnati, it’s a colloquial reminder that they are entering the south.

The words “Florence Mall” were originally painted on the water tower to promote a shopping complex that opened in the mid-1970s. The state said this violated state law since it advertised a building that didn’t exist along the interstate (Kemme, 2001). 

The town had limited time and money, so repainting the tank was out of the question. According to water tower lore, the Florence Mayor, C.M. “Hop” Ewing came up with the quick and easy solution to change the M in mall to a Y and add an apostrophe to make the tower read “Florence Y’all.”

The phrasing proved buzzworthy, so plans to repaint the tower were scrapped. The folksy greeting remains to this day.

The World's Largest Coffee Pot in Stanton, Iowa
The World's Largest Coffee Pot in Stanton, Iowa

Multicolumn elevated water tanks look like what their name describes. They have multiple columns to support a steel tank. How many columns they have depends on how large the tank is and its storage capacity. Variations of this type of tank have been built since post-WWII, including double ellipsoidal, toro spherical and toro ellipsoidal. Regardless of the shape, these tanks store large quantities of water.  Some of the largest tanks hold two million gallons or more.

Erected in 2000 as a companion to “The World’s Largest Coffee Pot,” a gigantic Swedish coffee cup in Stanton, Iowa, continues to be a roadside attraction (Munson, 2014). The flowery cup even sits in a decorative saucer. This multicolumn tank is an engineering marvel.

The coffee pot has humble beginnings. It was transformed from an elevated water tower into a Swedish coffee pot in 1971 to honor Stanton native Virginia Christine. She starred in a series of Folgers Coffee commercials. No longer needed to supply water, the coffee pot was lowered and relocated in 2014. It’s now housed on the Stanton Historical Society grounds.


The first reinforced concrete tank was built in Hull, Massachusetts in 1903. The Fort Revere water tower is an AWWA Historic Landmark (Fort Revere Park and Preservation Society). Life spans of most early concrete tanks were relatively short compared to steel tanks, which, if they’re maintained well, can last 100 years or more.

For one thing, it was hard to make the early reinforced concrete tanks watertight. The first prestressed concrete tanks were developed in the 1930s. These types of tanks became more popular as advancements were made in technology.

Composite pedestal design can combine the best of both worlds — a steel tank with a reinforced concrete pedestal. These types of tanks have been in high demand for the past few decades. Like fluted column tanks, composite elevated tanks can store three million gallons or more. Since the column supporting the tank is reinforced concrete, it doesn’t need to be repainted like steel surfaces.

A golf ball on a long skinny tee, a witch’s hat, a flashlight or a spaceship — these are all ways people have described water towers. No matter what they look like, they all serve the same purpose: To readily deliver water to people in a reliable manner.


  1. Kempe, Marcis. “New England Water Supplies – A Brief History.” Journal of The New England Water Works Association 120, no. 3. Sept. 2006. 
  2. Mathis, Gregory R., and Chlebeck, John. “Steel water towers associated with South Dakota water systems, 1894-1967: An Historic Context.” South Dakota State Historic Preservation Office. Sept. 2012.
  3. Kemme, Steve. “Water towers loom large.” The Cincinnati Enquirer, April 2, 2001.
  4. Munson, Kyle. “Stanton saves its famous coffeepot water tower.” The Des Moines Register, April 22, 2014.
  5. Fort Revere Park & Preservation Society.  “Massachusetts Hidden Treasure – Fort Revere Park, Hull MA.” (accessed June 21, 2018).

About the AuthorErin Schmitt is the technical writer/media director for Pittsburg Tank & Tower Group, a company based in Henderson, Kentucky.  She has a bachelor’s degree in journalism from the University of Kentucky.


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