Supporters of the 101-year-old Manassas water tower won a major victory last month when the city council unanimously rejected an appeal that would have led to its demolition.
Instead, the council voted Feb. 22 to uphold the Manassas Architectural Review Board’s ruling protecting the water tower. The council also authorized Mayor Harry J. “Hal” Parish II (R) to send a letter to state and federal agencies supporting a local preservation group’s efforts to have the structure listed on the National Register of Historic Places.
The City of Manassas Water and Sewer Department had appealed the review board’s ruling, urging demolition of the tower because it supplies little of the city’s water and requires costly maintenance. Tony Dawood, the city’s director of utilities, estimated that routine maintenance of the structure would cost about $100,000 over 15 to 20 years.
The council had voted in July to postpone a decision on the tower until the Virginia Department of Historic Resources State Review Board indicated whether it would be eligible for inclusion on the National Register of Historic Places.
Planner Allison Whitworth reported to the council that the state board had determined that the water tower did meet the criteria.
Council member Jonathan L. Way (R) said that the preservation group had raised several thousand dollars, and that inclusion on the National Register of Historic Places would help them seek additional grants and donations.
Council member Ken D. Elston (D) reminded the other members about the “priorities we say we have for the city — of place, community and a unique, authentic nature of the city. And it seems to me that the water tower does fall into each of those categories.”
Despite the vote, the ultimate fate of the structure remains uncertain.
Whitworth said that a listing on the National Register would not prevent transfer or demolition of the structure if no federal funds are used on the project.
As part of the unanimous motion, the council referred the issue to its land use committee for further discussion.
“I think it’s important that we sit down and have a measured discussion with regard to this issue and lay out all of the alternatives, and, without prejudging the final decision, come up with the right, best, appropriate decision for the community at large,” council member Mark D. Wolfe (R) said.
Stephen Hersch, a fifth-generation Manassas resident who has been leading the preservation effort, expressed gratitude for the council’s show of support.
“Our whole group felt a great sense of happiness and relief,” he said after the vote.
Hersch is president of the Manassas Historic Landmarks Preservation Corporation, a nonprofit group formed last year to raise funds to save the water tower.
At the request of the Virginia Department of Historic Resources, the group commissioned a survey of all the water storage facilities in Northern Virginia last fall, he said.
That revealed that the Manassas water tower, built in 1914, is the oldest working water storage facility of any kind in the region, Hersch said.
According to the survey, only three pre-World War II water towers with a hemispherical bottom are still standing in Northern Virginia, and the Manassas tower is the only one that is in excellent condition and not covered with antennas for cellphones, Hersch said.
“There are communities building replica water towers in replica town centers, not just for use as cell towers, but just for the purpose of creating a sense of place,” Hersch said. “And here we have a real town center and a real water tower, and we need to start to think of it as a resource and not just as a liability.”
On Feb. 26, the preservation group submitted a preliminary National Register nomination package to the state, accompanied by the letter of support from the city, Hersch said.
The National Park Service could decide on inclusion of the water tower on the National Register of Historic Places this summer, he said.