Five years after the village first received a grant to convert the west well house in Centennial Park into a museum exhibit space, the Riverside Historical Commission unveiled “The Water Tower Revisited: 1870 and Beyond” to the public on Saturday.
The exhibit includes about 20 historical photos of the village’s iconic water tower and traces its history since being built in 1870, suffering a devastating fire in 1913 and its eventual restoration in 2005.
The west well house will be open to the public on Saturdays from 10 a.m. to 2 p.m.
Some of the photos on display have been rarely displayed, including two photos taken from the observation deck of the original tower by Alpheus C. Badger between 1888 and 1895. One looks north toward the original school house on Woodside Road and the newly built Episcopal church, while the other shows the Arcade Building and, in the background, the old refectory.
Badger was an officer in the Riverside Improvement Company. A Chicago resident, he built a summer home (now demolished) in Riverside on Lawton Road.
The exhibit also includes a dramatic shot of the top of the water tower engulfed in flames during the Jan. 1, 1913 fire and a photo of the inside of the east well house – now the main Riverside Historical Museum – which was once converted into a telephone switchboard office by the Chicago Telephone Company.
It also includes a scale model of the restored water tower, donated to the Riverside Library in 2007 by LaGrange resident Jerry Doruska.
The emphasis on the history of the water tower and its importance to Riverside is meant not only as an educational tool. There’s an ulterior motive, says Historical Commission Chairwoman Judith Cizek.
“What we’d like to generate interest in is opening up the observation tower,” Cizek said. “It’s not just historical, it’s an economic development plan – as an attraction. Going up to the observation deck would be wonderful.”
Opening up the observation deck to tourists and others is not a new idea. The topic was broached last October by Historical Commission member Kimberly Jacobs at a special meeting of the village board.
Cizek said the observation deck would allow people to view the Riverside plan from a bird’s-eye view.
“You can stand on the deck and see the plan of Olmsted,” said Cizek, referring to the village’s landscape designer Frederick Law Olmsted. “The village itself is a museum without walls.”
Such a proposition would likely have to be a joint effort including the Historical Commission, Chamber of Commerce and village government. A key element, of course, would be fundraising.
“We’d like to use the [well house exhibit] as a stepping stone to seriously fundraising to get the observation deck open to the public,” said Jacobs.
The commission in recent years has stepped up its fundraising efforts, including raising $8,500 in 2010 and getting a grant of about $1,000 from the Illinois Association of Museums to purchase the hanging system and framing of the photos for the west well house exhibit.
The commission thanked its donors on May 1 at a special premier of the west well house exhibit and reception in the old water tower pump house. About 60 people attended the event.