This is one of the most frequently seen and most attractive governmental buildings in Detroit. However, very few people comment about it. And, at present, it is not accessible.
The great fire that destroyed the small village of Detroit on June 11, 1805 prompted interest in the development of a public water system. The residents paid no taxes for water since they used wells or drew water from the Detroit River. Changes occurred slowly but in, August, 1824, Territorial Governor Lewis Cass and the territorial legislature granted Peter Berthelet of Montreal the right to erect a wharf and pump water from the Detroit River for the city’s residents who were then taxed $1 per year for the right to use his water distribution system. A number of other private firms were granted rights to expand Berthelet’s water service and the tax for using municipal water rose to $10 per household annually by 1827. In 1835, mnicipal official sold bonds to purchase Berthelet’s system. This led to the founding of the agency that has become the Detroit Water and Sewerage Department, an organization that now provides water and sewer service to about 40 percent of Michigan’s population. That is, the water system founded by the city of Detroit in 1835 and still owned by the city supplies water and provides sewerage services to the city and to most of the suburban ring. aqueduct
Prior to 1880, the Board of Water Commissioners purchased a 56-acre tract on East Jefferson where the building you see is located. Shortly after 1900, it became clear that the area’s population and industrial activities were growing rapidly and that a vast amount of clean water would be needed. Indeed, by 1907, the city’s system was supplying an average of 160 gallons of water per day for every resident. Of course, much of that water was used by industries. Officials commissioned the Field, Hinchman and Smith firm to design a massive building for the pumps. The result is the very large, but appealing, High Lift building that you see.
Romans were famous for their extensive water system. Indeed, quite a few of the aqueducts they built several millennia ago remain standing in the former Roman Empire. Some of them may still be in use as bridges. So elements of classical architecture from the Roman era helped inspire the design of this building and several of the other massive buildings that the Water and Sewerage Department commissioned over the last couple of centuries. The budget for building this massive structure must have been suitably generous. One of Detroit’s most prolific and accomplished sculptors, Carrado Parducci, was commissioned to produce a series of bas-reliefs that are on the outside of this building. One of his sculptures shows a Roman architect designing an aqueduct; another portrays a Native American drinking from a stream, while the third shows workers digging a water tunnel.
This building is located in what was once Waterworks Park. Apparently, shortly after the Board of Water Commission purchased this property about 1880, this area became a popular public park. It provided access to the Detroit River but was also used for many recreational purposes. Indeed, pictures from the 1920s show not only picnicking families, but pools for swimming and small lakes for boating, as well as facilities for other recreational activities. This must have been a busy and popular public park in the era before almost universal car ownership.
Waterworks Park was closed to the public during World War I apparently because of a fear that enemy agents might disrupt the city’s water supply. Once again in World War II, it was closed to the public in the interest of protecting the water supply and preventing a shut down of the "Arsenal of Democracy." City officials closed the entire Waterworks Park in 1951, but I do not know the reason. Citizens protested the closure. In 1957, I believe that a strip of land along the Detroit River in what had been Waterworks Park was opened to the public. Then in 1961, a few acres close to East Jefferson were opened. Perhaps due contemporary concerns about terrorism, security has been substantially increased in recent years and many signs have been erected warning of the dire consequences of trespassing in what was once one of the city’s finest parks. Unless you have a close friend who holds a powerful appointment in the Detroit Water and Sewerage Department, you will probably not be able to appreciate the Parducci bas-reliefs or the other details of this impressive building that will celebrate its centennial birthday in 2010.
Architects: Field, Hinchman and Smith
Architectural style: Strong classical Roman influences
Date of Construction: 1910
Use in 2010: Pumping station used to provide southeast Michigan with fresh water
Website for a fascinating and detailed history of the Detroit Water & Sewerage Department: http://www.dwsd.org/history/complete_history.pdf
City of Detroit Designated Historic District: Not listed
State of Michigan Registry of Historic Places: Not listed
National Registry of Historic Sites: Not listed
Photograph: Ren Farley; July 23, 2007
Description updated: November, 2010
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