Downtown Raleigh's Water Tower: Hidden in Plain Sight
Feb 23, 2019 02:37PM
By Crash Gregg
AIA Tower plaque
This article appeared in Issue 142 of the Downtowner and includes more photos not in the print edition.
If you ask longtime Raleigh residents about the water tower in downtown Raleigh, many will have no idea what you’re talking about. “Water tower?! What water tower?” might be their response. Yes, it does exist and yes, it’s right in the middle of downtown Raleigh, hidden by large oak trees, the AT&T building, and in front by its own attached two-story office building. The fact that it sits on Morgan Street, a one-way with little pedestrian traffic, adds to its odd shroud of anonymity. When driving with the one-way traffic on Morgan, it’s almost impossible to see the four-story tower on the right just after the McDowell intersection, as it is completely blocked by the trees and building.
Built in 1887, the 85-foot octagonal structure, originally nicknamed the “Morgan Tower,” is made from 3-foot thick granite stones and four layers of bricks. It was built to support a 100,000-gallon metal water tank, which was filled by fresh water pumped through pipes from Walnut Creek. By the early 1900s, it was the sole water supply for the entire city of Raleigh. However, with continuing residential growth, the tower was soon inadequate to meet Raleigh’s water infrastructure needs. It was abandoned by the city in 1924, and a new, much larger tower was built further west. The water tank was removed and the city contemplated tearing down the tower. Luckily, they decided instead to sell it to local Raleigh architect, William Henry Deitrick, who converted the space into his office. He built four interior floors in the tower, including a spiral staircase along the inside curved wall. Even with the four floors, the majority of the tower’s interior is unobstructed and open all the way up to the crown. A few windows along the walls illuminate the massive 100-plus-year-old crisscrossed heart of pine beams at the apex of the octagonal tower.
Deitrick also renovated the front office building and the two-story maintenance shop behind the tower, connecting the two buildings with a walled garden courtyard. His offices remained in the water tower for almost 40 years until he generously deeded it to the NC Chapter of the American Institute of Architects (AIA). AIA moved into the tower in 1963, making it their office until 2010, when they had outgrown the mere 1500 square feet of space after almost 50 years.
David Crawford, AIA Executive Vice President, mentioned in our interview, “We loved showing off the building, but it was difficult to bring in more than four or five people at a time. We tried to invite the community to come and visit the historic tower, but it was almost impossible. The uniqueness of the building was amazing, but that was about the extent of its value as an office space. We enjoyed our time in the tower, but we weren’t sad when we moved out. We’re glad it’s being taken care of and preserved for the future by the new owner.”
Many Raleigh residents may remember seeing the tower and its front building with ivy-covered walls throughout the 70s and 80s. Though this gave the buildings a nostalgic and charming look, it was discovered in the 90s that the ivy was actually wicking out the moisture from the grout in the brick and stone and leading to the degradation of the structure. The ivy was removed and much of the grout work redone. In fact, even today, if you stand in the fourth-floor conference room long enough, you can actually hear the grout “coming out of the stone walls.” Luckily, this is only from the internal grout, which doesn’t affect the building’s integrity, and is caused by the pressure of the tons of bricks above the stone slabs.
David told us that he believes the tower was the first adaptive reuse project in North Carolina, originally built as a municipal facility, then becoming an architect’s office and later an association’s headquarters. Once the AIA had outgrown the tower, their organization sold it in 2010 to local developer, S&A Real Estate and Ryan Adams (no, not the singer). AIA found a suitable empty site at the corner of Peace and McDowell Streets near Seaboard and built a much larger office space using sustainable designs. Their new modernist building has over 12,000 square feet and plenty of nearby parking, neither of which the historic tower could offer.
S&A leased out the tower and front building to business tenants and has recently made several upgrades to the space to ensure the safety of the tower’s future. It is currently leased by one of the newly popular escape room companies.
The Raleigh Water Tower is located at 115 W. Morgan Street and is listed as a Raleigh Historic Landmark with the National Register of Historic Places. We hope the tower will remain for a long time as one of Raleigh’s most unique and notable structures. Visit our website for more photos of the tower: www.TriangleDowntowner.com and search for “water tower.”