It’s a huge structure on one of the tallest points in the city, yet people drive past daily without seeing it. Trees and houses in the Tangletown neighborhood of Minneapolis shroud the Washburn Water Tower, a 1932 monument to public health, modern design and a remarkable career.
Its designer was Henry Wild Jones (1859-1935), a Minnesota man of astonishing accomplishments. He designed buildings across the continental United States, as well as Hawaii and China. He was father of the University of Minnesota’s architecture department, as well as being a member of the Minneapolis Park Board. The exquisite chapel at Lakewood Cemetery was his work. He also designed more than a dozen recreation buildings in Minneapolis’ park system, numerous houses, churches and apartment buildings.
Jones’ work had a modern flavor, but it also cast an eye backward to historical precedents. By the early ’30s tastes had changed. The new styles were severe, with minimal ornamentation. A lesser talent would likely have built a plain tower, following the dictates of the day. But Jones found a way to meld the new styles with something that reached back centuries.
From the sides of the 110-foot-tall tower emerge eight solemn knights, hands clasped on the hilt of their blades. They are the Guardians of Health, guarantors of pure water. They look as if they could someday free themselves to do battle, if the need arose.
Atop the tower, eight eagles look out over town, their wings spread. According to lore, Jones was working on the construction of his own house nearby when he was beset by an enormous eagle. Its extraordinary dimensions were the talk of the town for a while. Jones, with the help of sculptor John Karl Daniels, reproduced his assailant for the tower’s crown.
It was one of Jones’ last works. He died three years after the tower’s completion. The Guardians still look down on the city, and it’s a hard heart that doesn’t feel awe and reverence in their strange, silent presence.