Louisville Water Tower

The Water Tower of Louisville, Kentucky (1856), is the oldest ornamental water tower in the world, having been built before the more famous Chicago Water Tower. Both the actual water tower and its pumping station are on the National Register of Historic Places. As with the Fairmount Water Works of Philadelphia (designed 1812, built 1819-22), the industrial nature of its pumping station was disguised in the form of a Greek temple complex.


The inspiration for the architecture of Louisville's Water Tower came from the French architect Claude Nicolas Ledoux, who merged "architectural beauty with industrial efficiency".

After the arrival of the second cholera pandemic in the United States (1832), Louisville in the 1830s and 40s gained the nickname "graveyard of the west", due to the polluted local water giving Louisville residents cholera and typhoid at epidemic levels. This was because residents used the water of tainted private wells. The decision was made by the Kentucky Legislature to form the Louisville Water Company on March 6, 1854.

It was purposely decided to render the water station an ornament to the city, to make dubious Louisvillians more accepting of a water company. Theodore Scowden and his assistant Charles Hermany were the architects of the structures. They chose an area just outside of town, on a hill overlooking the Ohio River, which provided excellent elevation. The location also meant that coal boats could easily deliver the coal necessary to operate the station. The main column, of the Doric order, rises 183 feet (55.8 m) out of a Corinthian portico surrounding its base. The portico is surmounted by a wooden balustrade with ten pedestals also constructed of wood, originally supporting painted cast-zinc statues from J. W. Fiske & Company, ornamental cast-iron manufacturers of New York, which depicted Greco-Roman deities, the four seasons, and an Indian hunter with his dog. Even the reservoir's gatehouse on the riverfront invoked the castles along the Rhine.

The water tower began operations on October 16, 1860. The tower was not just pretty; it was effective. In 24 hours the station could produce 12 million US gallons (45,000 m³) of water. This water, in turn, flowed through 26 miles (42 km) of pipe.

A tornado on March 27, 1890 irreparably changed the Water Tower. The original water tower had an iron pipe protected by a wood-paneled shaft, but after the tornado destroyed it, it was replaced with cast iron. The tornado also destroyed all but two of the ten statues that were on the pedestals. Shortly thereafter, a new pumping station and reservoirs were built in Crescent Hill, and the original water tower ceased pumping operations in 1909. The pumping station was last renovated in 2010.


The tower has been leased since 1977 by the Louisville Visual Arts Association, who offer art displays inside, and hold an annual party during the Great Steamboat Race. Other annual events include an art auction and contemporary art dinner plates.

The National Historic Landmarks program currently considers the pumping station, as well as the boiler house, to be "deteriorated". There is also concern that the Ohio River Bridges Project might further endanger the property.

Building Activity

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