Volunteer Park Water Tower and Observatory

Surrounded by a traffic circle and anchoring the Concourse at the south end of Volunteer Park, the Water Tower is a beloved monument of Seattle history. The Water Tower rises to 520 feet, the highest point on Capitol Hill, and provides a 360-degree view around the Puget Sound region from 16 windows arranged around the perimeter at the top (though maturing trees now block some of the view).

Built on a wooden mound sixteen feet high, the observatory is built around a standpipe (water tank). This standpipe was first built in 1906 and began operation in 1907 to improve water pressure. Sixty feet high and holding 883,000 gallons of water, the standpipe is formed from nine curved steel plates. A year after the standpipe went into operation, the observatory opened.

It is unknown who designed the Water Tower building, but John Olmsted once wrote in a letter to his wife that he supposed it had been Charles Saunders. Round with a brick exterior, the building has two doors, each leading to the observatory top via a spiraling staircase of 106 steps plus two short landings. The doorways themselves are topped by pediments (triangular pieces), under which the words “Aqua Pura – MCMVI” (pure water – 1906) appear. Below that is a row of stone-carved dentils (tooth-like pieces) that fit in with the classical architectural style of the granite doorframe and brick exterior.

Volunteer Park Water Tower North Entrance

The north entrance to the Water Tower

To the right of the north entrance is a bronze plaque to LB Youngs, the Water Department superintendent from 1895 to 1923. Under Youngs’s watch, the Cedar River was tapped to supply water to Seattle. Inside the south entrance is a hatch to the standpipe that is bolted shut.

Bronze plaque dedicated to LB Youngs

Bronze plaque to LB Youngs

The interior is dimly lit by sunlight filtering in from the doors and the windows and supplemented with electrical lights, creating an atmosphere that children may find enchanting. As you climb the broad steps, the echoing space and spiral create a sense of suspense and wonder. On the way up, children and adults alike will delight in knocking on the standpipe to hear and feel the vibrations that come from so much steel and water!

At the top, you will find a Seattle Parks map, an interpretive exhibit and other information to enjoy along with the view.

As part of a project to create a sophisticated and visitor-oriented park system, the Olmsted Brothers planned to install an observatory in Volunteer Park to look over the treetops and houses, which they knew would gradually rise with development. While the Water Tower (and the reservoir) was built before the Olmsted Volunteer Park design was implemented, the Water Tower location was suggested by John Charles Olmsted.

The 1906 Water Tower was added to the water supply system to supplement the Volunteer Park Reservoir, which was placed into service in 1901. Much of the engineering of the water system was performed by Reginald Thomas, whose work included the creation of a gravity-fed system that began southeast of Maple Valley at Landsburg and led to the Lincoln Park Reservoir (now where Cal Anderson Park is) and the Volunteer Park Reservoir.

If you have never been up the Water Tower, it is a delightful trip that sweeps you away to a time long past or perhaps one that exists only in a fairy tale.

1910 photo of the Water Tower

Standpipe and gate house in Volunteer Park, 1910

Admission: Free

Hours: 6 am to 11 pm

Accessibility: Not wheelchair accessible

COVID-19 advisory: The Water Tower is currently closed

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Historical photographs:

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References:

  1. Seattle Now & Then: A View from the Water Tower, JR Sherrard, 2009
  2. Seattle’s Olmsted Parks and Boulevards (1903–68), National Register of Historic Places Multiple Property Documentation Form, Historical Research Associates, 2016 [PDF]
  3. The Olmsted Legacy — the Fabled Massachusetts Landscape Firm Got to Seattle Early, and That Has Made All the Difference, David B Williams, 1999
  4. Volunteer Park Landmark Nomination, Friends of Seattle’s Olmsted Parks, 2011 [PDF]
  5. Volunteer Park (Seattle), Jennifer Ott, 2019
  6. Volunteer Park Water Tower | Free View of Seattle, Tim Lewis, undated
  7. Water Tower, Volunteer Park Trust, undated
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