The village of Riverside has budgeted $75,000 this year to “touch up” peeling paint on its signature landmark, the downtown water tower. But officials don’t expect the paint job to last long and are trying to determine the best way to maintain the tower’s appearance moving forward.
Paint flaking from the upper portion of the brick tower and peeling on its roof have been ongoing issues for the village since it spent more than $1 million to restore the landmark structure in 2005.
“Maintenance is a priority,” said Village Manager Jessica Frances. “It’s an instrumental part of our central business district.”
A solution to the problem has not been easy to find, and it relates to the bricks from which the upper portion of the tower is made. Back when the problem first revealed itself back in 2006, the public works director at the time noted that four different kinds of bricks make up the tower.
The Milwaukee cream and red finish bricks that comprise the lower portion of the tower date from its 1872 construction. Those bricks were not repainted after the restoration was done in 2005.
Above the decorative finish brick is common brick that dates from both 1872 and 1913. The earlier common brick was covered by the decorative wooden fretwork around the top of the tower. The later common brick, which extended the height of the tower, was added after a 1913 fire.
The peeling paint is especially noticeable among the 1872 common bricks on north side of the tower, though bricks higher up on the tower are affected as well.
At a meeting of the Riverside Preservation Commission last month, Public Works Director Edward Bailey said that the problem wasn’t simply peeling paint. Sure, paint was coming off the tower, but it was coming off along with flakes of the bricks themselves.
“The consensus is that it’s the face of the bricks falling off, not paint peeling,” Bailey said.
Uncertainty regarding how exactly to move forward with maintaining the water tower, if indeed the bricks are crumbling away, is what led Bailey to appear before the Preservation Commission, which oversees exterior modifications to local landmark structures.
While there’s no plan for how to approach longer-term maintenance right now, Bailey felt it was appropriate to keep the commission apprised of the situation.
“I’m almost certain to obtain architectural help with this,” Bailey told the commission in March.
A decade ago, village officials realized that the peeling paint was going to be a perpetual problem, but they didn’t understand the scope of the issue.
In 2005, the upper, common-brick portion of the tower was covered with a mineral coating made by a German company called Keim Mineral Systems. When the paint flaking first appeared less than a year after it was restored, the Keim mineral coating was applied to the affected bricks. Just a few months later, village officials noted that the touch-ups hadn’t taken and that problem hadn’t been solved.
By 2010, the village’s public works director requested a $20,000 line item for water tower paint retouching, and the village board accepted that this paint problem was going to be an issue that would need ongoing funding, perhaps $10,000 per year.
In 2015, the village sought to hire a company to do just that, but couldn’t find anyone who wanted to take on the job. The job was too small to attract anyone, said Bailey. In addition, retouching the paint would require erecting scaffolding or using a lift truck.
Bailey said that there’s enough work to do at this time to offer a larger project that may attract several competitive bids. He said a bid package would be ready in the next 30 to 60 days.
The package would include retouching the tower bricks using the Keim mineral coating and repainting the metal roof, which has peeled tremendously in some areas, and on the southwest side in particular.
This year’s project, said Bailey, likely will inform how the village will approach maintenance in the future and whether it may need to seek a solution other than the Keim coating.
If that’s the case, Riverside may need to consult with the Illinois Historic Preservation Agency. The 2005 restoration of the water tower was made possible in part by a $275,000 grant from the National Park Service’s through the federal government’s Save America’s Treasures Program.
As part of the grant, Riverside entered into a 50-year conservation easement agreement with the Illinois Historic Preservation Agency. The agreement restricts altering the tower, including repainting and refinishing, from deviating from preservation standards accepted by the U.S. Department of the Interior.
Since the Keim mineral coating was approved as part of the original restoration, doing touch-ups using that material appears to align with the easement agreement. But if the village wanted to change that method or replace bricks, it might trigger a review.
“We’re going to learn something from the project this year,” Bailey said.