For more than 10 years, the area around the Roland Water Tower has been fenced off because pieces of the building were falling off and it was unsafe to stand too close.
But on Sunday more than 200 people gathered at the tower’s base to celebrate completion of a $1.5 million stabilization and restoration that not only made it safe again but underscored its significance as a symbol of pride and unity for the North Baltimore neighborhoods around it.
A 3 p.m. ribbon cutting ceremony capped a day of activities at the tower, including music by the Powell Brothers; hula hoop lessons from Baltimore Hoop Love; and a chalk drawing of the tower by Baltimore artist Michael Kirby.
It also capped a decade-long effort to stabilize and repair the 148-foot-tall, city-owned structure, built in 1905 at 4210 Roland Avenue to provide water for Hampden but later declared surplus and targeted for the wrecking ball.
The octagonal, Beaux Arts-style tower, with a brick and terra cotta exterior, was decommissioned in 1930, when the city’s reservoir system was built, and needed extensive repairs to its masonry sides and tile roof.
The effort was led by the Roland Park Community Foundation and The Friends of the Roland Water Tower. Neighborhoods that supported and benefited from the project include Roland Park, Hoes Heights, Rolden, Hampden, Heathbrook and Medfield.
Baltimore City Council member Odette Ramos called the tower a “historic gem” and said the restoration was “a monumental achievement.”
Mary Page Michel, president of the Roland Park Community Foundation, said the tower was built at a time when even the most utilitarian structures were designed to be beautiful.
“We must hold onto these historic buildings as well as every park, no matter the size,” she said.
Michel said the tower has become a unifying symbol for the neighborhoods around it.
“At this crazy time in the world, we need more unity, more community, and this tower, and this space, bring us together,” she said. “Let’s never let it be obsolete again.”
Former Baltimore City Council member Mary Pat Clarke was singled out for leading the effort to save the tower from demolition by introducing legislation to have it declared a city landmark.
Baltimore’s public works department had budgeted $300,000 to raze the tower, but Clarke with her legislation helped persuade city bureaucrats to change course and preserve it instead, using the money for repairs rather than demolition.
State Delegate Samuel ‘Sandy’ Rosenberg drew thanks for his efforts to introduce bond bills that provided funding from the Maryland General Assembly, and the community foundation raised private funds to match the state’s allocation.
Clarke echoed Michel’s sentiments about the tower’s importance as a symbol for the community.
“Why do we save the tower when it doesn’t provide water anymore?” she asked the crowd. “We do that because the tower is now a symbol of the togetherness [of the community.] The bringing together, the coming together. Not just today, but ongoing…This is a place for people to come together, be together, remember what it took to get to this point, and be together when the next crisis arises, which I’m sure it will but not today.”
Rosenberg said the work is an example of an issue that has been getting a lot of attention from the federal government: the need to improve aging public infrastructure.
“This is a landmark, not just for the Roland Park community but for the other surrounding communities,” he said. “Hopefully, there will be more cases like this in the near future.”
Lewis Contractors was the contractor. Tom McCracken served as the owner’s representative. Repairs to the roof and masonry began in September 2020, and the scaffolding came down starting in June. Unlike the restoration of the Washington Monument in Mount Vernon, visitors won’t be able to climb up to the top and look out.
The project also included a nesting box at the top that will provide a better home for peregrine falcons who have taken up residence there. The falcons have been away during construction but are expected to return next spring.
With work on the tower complete, the foundation has turned its attention to a second phase of improvements, a new park at the base of the tower. Unknown Studio is the landscape architect working with the foundation to develop a design that can be put out for bids.
The foundation is raising funds and the designers have come up with two possible designs for the community to consider, a traditional approach that evokes parks from the early 1900s and a more “organic” approach. Representatives for the Maryland Historical Trust have indicated that they want whatever happens to be symmetrical.
The foundation is also waiting to hear whether the Baltimore Country Club will accept its offer to buy 20 acres it owns west of its club house at 4712 Club Road, all the way down to Falls Road, so it can create a community park called Hillside Park. Leaders say they hope to hear back by the end of the year.