KPH Water Tower: Landmark and Legend

KPH Water Tower

Souvenir, Michigan State Medical Society, Kalamazoo, Mich., 1899

Visible from almost any approach to the city of Kalamazoo is a structure shrouded in mist, myth and mystery...the water tower on the grounds of the Kalamazoo Psychiatric Hospital. The structure dominates the skyline as it rises in medieval splendor. Wrapped in fog or reflecting the hues of the rising or setting sun, the tower is a cherished landmark of the city.

Constructing the Tower

Toward the end of the nineteenth century, a Detroit architect, B. F. Stratton, was commissioned to plan a water tower that would serve the water supply and fire protection needs of the sprawling institution that had spread along what is now Oakland Drive. Stratton was instructed to come up with a structure that would complement the medieval feeling of the other buildings on the hospital grounds.

Construction began and ended in 1895 in the skilled hands of early stonemasons and bricklayers. The result is stunning.

The tower soars 175 feet into the air, rising from a base of cut stone blocks five feet high. The brick begins above this base. Approximately 50 feet wide at its widest point, it contains three water storage tanks inside. The main tank is 40 feet high and 40 feet in diameter and has a capacity to hold more than 200,000 gallons of hard water. Two smaller tanks flanking the main tank hold soft water.

The structure is really a tower within a tower. The outer shell tapers from six feet thick at the base to four feet at the top. Enclosed is an inner shell, which is also about six feet thick. Between the inner and outer shells is a wooden circular stairway, which winds upwards until it reaches 100 feet. Then a series of ladders leads to the top of the tower. At the top is a little room, gothic in appearance, that has a window facing in each direction. Four enormous wooden beams meet in the center of the room. They are etched with dozens of sets of initials carved by visitors, the oldest by one W. E. DeLong dated 1898.

Diagram of Water Tower

A "Save the Tower" brochure, c1975, in History Room Subject File: Kalamazoo State hospital – Buildings & Grounds

A History with Fire

True to its purpose, fire has been an important part of the tower's history. It was twice hit by lightning...twice in exactly the same place. The first bolt hit the roof on the night of 24 June 1937. The second bolt struck eight years and one month later on 24 July 1945. Both lightning strikes started fires, and the hospital's fire brigade did a masterful job of extinguishing the blazes in the dark.

During the disastrous Burdick House hotel fire of 1909, the flames were so fierce that city water mains burst, and the firefighters lost their water pressure. Pressed into emergency service, the tower water lines on Oakland Drive were hooked in to the city mains and water flowed from the firefighters hoses once again. This action saved Kalamazoo from being engulfed in flames.

Ripe for Rumor

Popular rumor and myth have always swirled around the edifice. Stories have circulated that it was a dungeon where violent mental patients were restrained. Others maintained that guards patrolled the battlements 24 hours a day. As fanciful as these legends may be, the structure has never been anything but what it was constructed for...a constant water supply for the institution.

View from Water Tower

View from water tower, southeast, overlooking the male department, roughly 1900
KPL Photograph, Siggins Album, page 6

‘Save the Tower’

In spite of being on the National Register of Historic Buildings and endorsed by the Michigan Historical Commission and the Kalamazoo County Bi-Centennial Commission, the structure was earmarked by the State of Michigan for demolition in 1974. A local committee that called itself the Committee to Save the Tower launched a campaign to raise public funds to restore the building to its original grandeur and save it from the wrecking ball. A year later, Mrs. William John (Penny) Upjohn announced that $208,000 was successfully raised for this purpose. The money came from federal, state, and city contributions to the effort. Contributions also came from such disparate groups as school children, former state hospital patients, current hospital patients and employees, a hospital auxiliary, service clubs and concerned citizens. The campaign to save the structure was not without controversy. Some residents felt that the monies needed to repair the structure could better be spent on local service needs. Sen. Jack R. Welborn, R-Kalamazoo, pointed out, however, that taxpayers would be spending at least $150,000 to tear down the tower.

Thanks to the community's sense of historic preservation, the tower remains a familiar and welcoming presence on Kalamazoo's skyline.



On  February 4, 2009, KPL hosted a program featuring the city's historic preservation coordinator, Sharon Ferraro, as part of the "This Old Building" series. Ms Ferraro discussed the history of the tower, what has been happening with it recently, and its possible future.

View a brief interview with Sharon Ferraro, followed by the complete presentation


History Room Subject File

Kalamazoo State Hospital 

Kalamazoo State Hospital - Buildings & grounds