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John Olson: This tower is a reservoir of our common stories

John Olson
January 21, 2005

If I have to be buried, if it comes to that, bury me under the Washburn Water Tower in Tangletown, Minneapolis. It's as good a landmark and touchstone -- and so, maybe, headstone -- as a body can expect from his hometown.

It has majesty, towering above what must be one of the highest points in Minneapolis.

It has mystery, ringed by 16-foot-tall ominous and sword-wielding soldiers standing sentry under huge concrete eagles.

The soldiers are "guardians of health" designed to protect Minneapolitans from typhoid. When the edifice was constructed in 1932, tainted water had been linked to the disease.

The eagle motif is based on an actual giant eagle. The famed water tower architect, Harry Wild Jones, who also designed Lakewood Cemetery Chapel, claimed that the eagle attacked him while he was clearing land to build his Tangletown home. The 8-foot-wingspan eagles on the water tower are reportedly actual size.

The tower is visible from everywhere and unapproachable by any straight line. You can see it all up and down Grand Avenue; you just can't get to it from there.

It's on the flight path, right about where the wheels drop and the flaps come down.

Years ago, planes used to skim the top of the water tower. We'd throw stones, trying to ding the planes' undersides as they rumbled overhead. We imagined the pilots waved at us on approach.

We'd tell stories about Charles Schulz, the "Peanuts" creator, who was said to have lived in the castle-like house at the bottom of the hill. We'd slide down the hill in winter and in summer too -- if the maintenance man had left the hose on. Eventually and predictably, there were Pall Malls and mason jars of Canadian Club.

But the Washburn Water Tower was mostly a destination that made aloneness, time-killing and cloud-watching just a little more exalted. A person might even bring his date there just to see if she would grasp the portentousness of it all.

I went there recently with my 5-year-old. There is now a steel-pronged fence around the hilltop. Was it there to keep terrorists out of the water supply or teens from libeling Southwest High's athletic program with paint from art class?

Was typhoid back?

My son was unaffected by the fence. We could still walk around the hilltop. From this vantage point, you can imagine that there are still brave and dangerous expeditions to embark on. Not every destination has succumbed to the sameness of subdivisions and malls; not every hill has been leveled to meet a raised valley.

And there are still peculiar landmarks that serve as reservoirs of our common stories. They are thumbtacks in the map of our lives.

Were they good guys or bad guys, my son wanted to know. He was asking about the soldiers. I said I didn't know. The guardians-of-health story didn't quite capture it.

But see that castle house? The guy who drew Snoopy used to live there.

John Olson is president of Olson + Company Advertising.