Volunteer Park Water Tower and Observatory

Seattle’s beloved Volunteer Park Water Tower rises to 520 feet above sea level, the highest point on Capitol Hill. Climb to the top where you can enjoy sweeping views of the Puget Sound region. Sixteen windows around the perimeter provide 360-degrees of viewing beauty! While trees now block some of the view, the Parks Department is planning a renovation project when funds are available.

At the base, a circular walking path takes you around the Water Tower. The Water Tower also serves as a traffic circle, anchoring the Concourse at the south end of Volunteer Park. The Water Tower is the first thing visitors see when entering from Millionaire’s Row on 14th Avenue East.

History

Built on a wooden mound sixteen feet high, the observatory structure encloses a standpipe (water tank). This standpipe was built from nine curved steel plates to improve water pressure in 1906. It is sixty feet high and holds 883,000 gallons of water. In 1907, the Water Tower began operation, and then the Observatory opened the following year.

It is unknown who designed the Water Tower building, but John Olmsted once wrote that he thought it may have 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 Volunteer Park Reservoir began service in 1901, and the 1906 Water Tower was added for additional volume and water pressure. Much of the engineering of Seattle’s water system was performed by Reginald Thomas. In addition to Volunteer Park, his gravity-fed system led to the Lincoln Park Reservoir (now Cal Anderson Park) from southeast of Maple Valley at Landsburg.

Entrances

The words “Aqua Pura – MCMVI” (pure water – 1906) welcome visitors into the Water Tower. Above the engraved words is a classical pediment (triangular piece). Further adding to the classical features are a granite doorframe and a row of stone-carved dentils (tooth-like pieces) just above the doorway.

Volunteer Park Water Tower North Entrance

The north entrance to the Water Tower

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LB Youngs Plaque

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.

Another detail to note is the bolted hatch inside the south entrance that leads to the standpipe.

Bronze plaque dedicated to LB Youngs

Bronze plaque to LB Youngs

Water Tower Interior

Dim sunlight filters in through the doors and windows above. In addition, electrical lights provide light, 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.

When designing Seattle’s park system, the Olmsted Brothers planned to install an observatory in Volunteer Park to look over the treetops and houses, which would rise with development. While the Water Tower (and the reservoir) was built before the Olmsted Volunteer Park design was implemented, John Charles Olmsted suggested the Water Tower location for the observatory.

Water Tower Video

For further information watch this video on the interior and exterior of the Water Tower by SkyPencil:

Every visitor to Seattle should take in the Volunteer Park Water Tower and Observatory at least once. It is a delightful trip that sweeps you away to a time long past or perhaps one that exists only in a world of the imagination!

1910 photo of the Water Tower

Standpipe and gate house in Volunteer Park, 1910

Visitor Information

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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Water Tower Links

Historical photographs

Additional information

Photo credit

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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