Second phase of Water Tower restoration completed Plaza park opened, complete with fancy water fountain, seating areas

In 1999, Weehawken’s official centerpiece, the historic Water Tower, seemed as if it was headed toward oblivion.

At one time, the tower provided gravity-fed water to residents of Union City, Weehawken and Hoboken. The 175-foot structure was built in 1883 by the Hackensack Water Company as a model of the Palazzo Vecchio in Florence, Italy.

The majestic brick edifice held four levels of office space below 165,000 gallons of water in tanks.

However, once it was no longer functional, it unofficially became the largest pigeon coop in northern New Jersey, with more than 10,000 pigeons flying in and out of its broken windows.

The owner of the adjacent Pathmark Shopping Center, which assumed ownership of the tower, wanted it to come down, even though it had been registered among both the state and federal government as a historic site.

And then…

“They received a demolition permit,” said Alane Finnerty, a former town commissioner who has served as the chairman of the Weehawken Water Tower Restoration Committee since the demolition permit was issued seven years ago. “There was no protection from stopping them from bringing it down.”

However, Finnerty felt good about the prospects of saving the tower.

“I always believed that the most action takes place when there’s a reaction,” said Finnerty, “I know the mayor [Richard Turner] was very adamant about that tower not coming down.”

“It was a race against time,” Turner said. “As the structure got weaker, it bolstered his case for demolition. If it was deemed unsafe, then nothing could prevent it from coming down, even though it had historic distinction.”

Turner then realized that the only way to save the Water Tower was for the township to take ownership of it.

“So we began negotiations with the owner,” Turner said, “and we worked out a deal.”

After receiving nearly $2 million in state and federal aid, the project to restore the Water Tower began in earnest in 2000.

$2 million in gov’t aid

The first phase of the restoration project was to shore up both the interior and exterior of the building, as well removing pigeons and nearly eight tons of hazardous pigeon droppings.

New wood floors were installed. The brick exterior was secured and steadied. The water tank was cleaned and access to the tank was created. A new roof, complete with a majestic flag pole, was installed.

Once the interior and exterior work was completed in 2005, the time had come to create a picturesque setting at the base of the tower.

Thanks to a $500,000 grant from the state Department of Treasury, secured by then State Assemblyman Albio Sires, the Water Tower Plaza Park began construction in September, 2005.

Now open

The park was officially opened in a grand ceremony Friday, with several dignitaries on hand for the unveiling.

The new area features four connected marble courtyards, complete with seating areas, benches, trees and shrubs and the centerpiece being a functional fountain that looks like an antique industrial water pipe, complete with nozzle and gauge.

The park was designed by Steven Schwamb of Elysian Fields Design of Hoboken, with assistance from Boswell Engineering, Eric Holtermann of HMR Architects and Let It Grow landscaping contractors.

“Someone recommended a lion’s head for the fountain,” Finnerty said. “I just said, ‘No way.’ So then Eric [Holtermann] recommended the pipe. It was so perfect and different. It represented the actual industrial use of the tower. When you see the fountain, it stands out. And the water actually blocks out the sound of the traffic. It has this tranquil feel.”

Sires, who was elected to the United States Congress Tuesday and will take his oath of office in Washington Monday morning, said that he was impressed with the finished product.

“As a boy, I remember walking past the tower all the time to go play basketball in Charlie’s Park [on Highwood Avenue],” Sires said. “The conservation of this tower was so important because it’s a beautiful place and it stands out in Weehawken. We’re glad we were able to save it.”

“We felt it was important to remember our industrial history and to not forget our roots,” Turner said. “This tower is the last symbol we have of what brought us all here to Weehawken. It’s been here forever and we want to insure that it will stay on forever. There are some people who believe that nothing is worth saving in Hudson County, that we need everything new. This is not the case here.”

Finnerty said that she was delighted with the finished product of the plaza.

“It’s a small area, but every inch of it is used properly,” Finnerty said. “The seating areas, the visibility, the trees. It’s providing a sense of identity and place. It’s our town that did this. It looks as if it should have always been there, like it was supposed to be. It makes me proud to be a part of it. To see the reality of it all is really a high.”

There’s one other aspect to the new plaza. The front gate has the word “Weehawken” across the top, standing out for all to see.

“It almost looks like old factory lettering,” Finnerty said. “It shows that it’s ours.”

What of the interior?

Now, the final phase has to be addressed – meaning a practical purpose to the interior. There had been talk about turning the interior into offices or commercial space, but more funding will be necessary.

“We need to find the funding sources for that,” Finnerty said. “That’s the next step.”

“It’s gorgeous,” Turner said. “It’s all adding to the ongoing revitalization of Park Avenue.”


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