Manassas residents hope to save century-old water tower

The Manassas water tower, a 147-foot structure that can be seen for miles around, just made it to its 100th birthday. Soon, however, it might be torn down.

The city’s Water and Sewer Department has sought permission to demolish the aging steel tower whose “Welcome to Manassas” legend stands out above the historic Old Town district. But a group of citizens hope to persuade the city council to preserve it.

“People have a very emotional attachment to that water tower,” said Stephen Hersch, a fifth-generation Manassas resident who is leading the opposition to its demolition. “We just have a real interest in the community and in the aspects of the community that give it its real sense of place and sense of home.”

That interest has led more than 600 people to join a Facebook group dedicated to preserving the tower. They have posted memories about the structure looming over their Manassas childhoods, and mused about collecting private contributions to keep it standing in the years to come.

But the Water and Sewer Department says that tearing down the tower is a practical necessity. Built a century ago, it is no longer a meaningful component of the city’s water system, and its upkeep is expensive.

Tony Dawood, the city’s deputy director of water and sewers, said that the annual cost of keeping the tower in use ranges from $8,000 to $10,000. Additionally, it is overdue for repainting, a $90,000 expense.

All that for a tower that holds 75,000 gallons of water — pretty good in 1914, but a drop in the bucket in 2014, when the city’s water system holds more than 4.5 million gallons. The city can store more than enough water without it. The fire station adjacent to it would like to have the land, which it uses for training exercises.

Keeping the tower operating would increase every customer’s water bill by nearly 2 percent, said Dawood. “The cost to maintain that facility at this point is almost cost-prohibitive,” he said. “We look at it strictly from a utilities standpoint, and this is really a cost to our customers.”

The decision lies with the Manassas City Council, which will hold a public hearing on the issue Monday.

The Architectural Review Board, which considered the Water and Sewer Department's demolition petition first, voted to deny its application. The board ruled that the tower was “historically significant,” “a landmark,” and an example of “distinctive shape and design” no longer seen in contemporary water towers.

Hersch has been marshaling citizens to send letters to the council, and said he was optimistic about their chances of saving the water tower.

As for Dawood, he said he has been talking to city council members about the idea of tearing it down since 2009, and he put the odds of the council approving his request at 50-50. He said he is not sure what his department will do with the tower if it cannot demolish it — perhaps try to sell it.

One resident has an idea. In a letter to the council, Jimmy Lunsford wrote, “What if the City were to use the tower as a marketing tool?” He suggested lighting the tower in thematic colors for holidays like St. Patrick’s Day and the Fourth of July. “I believe people would flock to our City to come see the lit tower.”

Julie Zauzmer is a local news reporter.
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