Drivers see Osseo's water tower branded with its name long before they even hit the small northwest metro city's border.

The tiny pointed-top tower is nearly 100 years old and one of the few of its kind left in Minnesota from the turn of last century. But with the aging structure in need of costly repairs, the town is divided on whether it should stay or be torn down.

"It's an icon of our town," said Kathleen Gette, who's trying to save it. "It's really a way for people to find the town."

Gette, who lives in her childhood home in view of the tower, is leading the effort to add Osseo's tower to the list of more than 20 Minnesota water towers now on the National Register of Historic Places, and will soon find out if it's eligible to make the list.

The tower, built in 1915, hasn't held water for years, but has become a landmark for the northwest metro town of 2,400 residents. On its American-flag-lined Main Street, an image of the water tower graces the welcome banners on streetlights. It's on City Hall and Police Department signs.

But now, the city says it needs an estimated $500,000 in repairs to make it structurally safe and to remove lead paint.

It's also near some of the most significant redevelopment in the town in recent years. From more than 100 new apartments to a new police station, orange construction cones and fencing mark the changes closing in on the tower.

Some residents say the water tower isn't special enough, and that it's cheaper to tear it down, which would cost an estimated $80,000.

"It's going to cost the city too much to maintain," said City Council Member Allan Hartkopf, who has lived in Osseo for 70 years. "It's a waste of money, as far as I'm concerned. You drive around the country and you see these everywhere."

Tower can 'still tell a story'

Compared with other water towers, like the "Witch's Hat" tower in Prospect Park or the Highland Park water tower in St. Paul, Osseo's is really utilitarian, said Denis Gardner, the National Register historian with the Minnesota Historical Society.

"[But] there's not many of these left," he said of the water tower style commonly built in the late 1800s and early 1900s, adding that there probably are only six of this style in Minnesota. "This has become a rare kind of water tower. If you were going to be intellectually honest, you recognize history whether it's pretty or not. Some things can be really humble and still tell a story."

That's what Gette is hoping state and federal officials see in Osseo's water tower.

After the city gave approval, she wrote a grant application for money from the state Legacy Amendment. This summer, the city was awarded $6,500 to hire a history consultant, Alexa McDowell. She helped Elk River get its 1920s water tower on the National Register in 2012. The two towers, she said, are probably the only ones left in a 50-mile radius of small metro-area towns.

"They used to be all over the place," she said.

'A way-finding tool'

The water towers didn't just hold water at one point; they also helped indicate the time period of a town's growth, often built next to factories or railroad facilities, McDowell said. Now, they've become a more noticeable town marker than a welcome sign.

"If we drive through the countryside in the Midwest, they're a way-finding tool," she said. "It's a sense of place."

Her report studying the water tower and its history is expected to be completed by February and sent to the Historical Society to review.

She said it has a strong case for being on the National Register, and if the state agrees, the city can decide whether to apply for another Legacy grant for a consultant to do a formal nomination. That would be reviewed by state and federal officials. If Osseo's tower makes the list, Gardner said, it would not only honor the building, but qualify the city for other grants that could help with needed improvements.

Gette says she just wants to make sure the towering structure doesn't disappear from Osseo's horizon as it reaches its 100-year mark.

"Most cities tear their old water towers down," she said, "but this has historical significance."

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