A Fear-of-Heights Test in an Old Water Tower

Mar 9, 2017

With its late-1800s-America-meets-medieval-European style, the old state hospital water tower is one of Kalamazoo’s quirkier landmarks. It’s also one of the tallest. As this reporter discovered in January, it's no easy task to reach the rafters.

The tour took place in January. I walked in the door at the base with photographer Jake Green from the Kalamazoo Gazette, John Mason with Kalamazoo’s Country, Sharon Ferraro from the city, and our guide Jim Crane, who's a fire and safety officer for the state.

“If you look here, people signed down here who didn’t quite make it to the top,” Crane says as we check out the walls.

“I tried,” someone reads aloud.

Crane has told us to keep three points of contact as we climb and to spread out so we don’t put too much weight on one spot. We are wearing eye protection to keep debris out of our eyes.

“Heading up, I would recommend that you do not look down,” is his last piece of advice.

The climb starts with stairs. The thin railing wobbles as I grasp it.

Like many people in Kalamazoo, I see the Kalamazoo State Hospital Tower from the outside all the time. Not only is it tall, it’s on a hill, making it visible from many parts of town.

It’s a sturdy orange-brick column with a copper roof that looks like a pointy green hat. The last third of the column or so bumps out like the top of an ice cream cone.

With its castle stylings the wide part kind of looks like a watchtower, but really it just holds the water tank.

A few minutes ago when we still had our feet on the ground,, Historic Preservation Coordinator Sharon Ferraro told us that the tower got a checkup about 10 years ago. And it did pretty well.

“They checked to see how straight it was and it’s off of plumb by about an inch. Which is better than most modern buildings."

Ferraro adds that the tower was built in 1895, “On time and on budget.”

The buildings of the active psychiatric hospital surround it on all four sides.

Commonly if you’ve got a tower the stairs wind around the core. It used to be so in this one. But Ferraro says at some point those stairs came out. Now there’s a narrow staircase to the side of the core. It spirals up with few supports and a lot of empty space on either side. As I climb, the light gets dim, the air smells like iron and I start to understand why Crane told us not to look down.

We get a break when the stairs end, to stand on “Rapunzel’s balcony” where Crane looks out at the town.

“See the Radisson there, Fifth Third building right across from it, that big plume right there is Graphic Packaging, you can see the clock tower over at K,” he says, referring to Kalamazoo College.

But we’re going to the top of the tower, and that means it’s time to climb the ladders on the side of the old water tank. Crane warns us that the going gets narrow between the braces on the sides.

“It’s pretty dark up here and these do get tight so you’ve got to squeeze through,” he explains.

While climbing these ladders, it’s important not to dwell on the rusty condition of the rungs and to not get too lost in thoughts about exactly what would happen to you if you fell. This part was also the most aerobic.

“It’s only a little bit sketchy,” Green calls down as I climb.

And it only gets sketchier from there.

If you’re going to stand over an empty tank that’s dozens of feet deep, you probably want to stand on something robust. Aged wood might not be your first choice of material. But it is an old wooden staircase that leads to the top of the tower.

Crane says we can go up one at time.

“Don’t look down,” I say out loud, to myself, as I walk.

“Doesn’t feel quite right does it?” Crane asks.

The platform at the top is just under the roof.

Crane: Want to sign your name?

Me: Uh, I do.

Crane: you don’t want to let go.

Me: I suppose I would need a hand to sign my name.

I take the marker and do my best to carve through the crumbly paint, and Crane takes a picture.

Crane: It’ll probably be your new Facebook profile.

Me: It very well might be yeah. When I tell my parents that I did this.

Ferraro had told us that coming down would be even worse than going up. That was true on the ladders, where it felt like gravity was trying to peel me off. By the time I got back to the stairs they didn’t look so bad anymore, though I steppef off at the bottom with relief.

Most days it’s enough to enjoy the tower from the outside.