Kansas City Parks Series – #1: Waldo’s Tower Park

(originally published 8/1/2019)

Tower Park in Waldo has always held a special place in my heart. Through much of the 1980s and 1990s I lived just blocks from it. Sitting on the southwest corner of 75th Street and Holmes Road, the Tower Park tower was a landmark for giving directions to my house. It was a beacon. As far south as Red Bridge, I could see it. I would drive toward it, as if I might get lost and it would show the way home.

It was always the tower that made Tower Park special. As I said, it’s special to me, but as parks go, it nothing unique. It fits all the standard requirements with no frills. Walking trail, playground, picnic shelter, ball field – check, check, check and check. No, it’s not the “park” part of Tower Park that’s interesting. It’s the tower. What was it for? What is it now? It’s been a source of speculation, mystery and at one time, an urban legend that, sadly, for once turned out to be true. It’s a good time to answer some of those questions.

Early illustration of the Waldo Water Tower at 75th & Holmes

What was the original purpose of the tower?

Though the architecture suggests something more exotic, the original tower was just another water tower, built in 1919 to service the growing Waldo area. The property was purchased for $14,616 from Frank and Grace Riley, which explains why the tower’s official name is the Frank T. Riley Memorial Water Tower. I doubt anyone’s called it by that name in many years, if ever. It held one million gallons, but the water was only used during times of high demand. Why doesn’t it look like a regular water tower? Its appearance comes from the fact that it was built from an experimental design. The tower incorporated some unique, cutting-edge technology and construction methods. Engineers of the day characterized it as one of the first and largest reinforced concrete standpipes ever attempted in America. It took two days of continuous pour just to build the base. Another continuous pour of fourteen days formed the tower, using a new technique known as “slip form” in which the concrete forms were elevated on jacks as work progressed. The use of concrete simply suggested an architectural style that fit the medium, a castle tower with all the standard details. Original plans called for an observation tower, but the idea proved impractical.

Is it still a water tower?

No. In its first few years, improvements were made to the park and the water tower, including a ten-million-gallon underground reservoir and pumping station in 1938. But in 1957, the city decommissioned the water tower. It lacked both the capacity and the technology to meet current demands. For the next few years, there was some contention as to which city department was responsible for the property, but in the end, the park property at the site became the purview of Parks, and the empty tower belonged to Water Services.

But what about the park? Was it always a park?

When the water tower began operating in 1919, the acres around the tower quickly became a gathering place for Waldo residents, but it would take the threat of post-World War II housing to make it a park. A development speculating on the market for GI-housing was encroaching on the property, and the neighborhood pushed back. Construction was underway, but plans were revised when the city finally agreed to give Waldo its own park, something that had been talked about for years. When it came time to for the city to name the park, Waldo resident Leo T. Schwarz spoke up for the obvious. “It should be called Tower Park because that is what everyone calls it.”

Is it true what I’ve heard about what happened?

This is a frequent question in the realm of local history. I get them a lot at my presentations – and usually, the answer to the amazing or horrifying tale I’m told is an emphatic no. Unfortunately, this time it’s yes.

If a working water tower had been a source of fascination to the community, an abandoned one was even more intriguing, particularly to young people in Waldo. Despite every deterrent they could devise, kids would find a way to climb the fence and scale the ladder. Maybe it was a rite of passage to claim to have scaled the tower and seen all the way to downtown from its top, or to claim to have seen stolen treasure or dead bodies inside, just to heighten the excitement.

So it was understandable that when some children claimed they had seen inside the tower what they thought was a body at laying on the bottom, they couldn’t get anyone to believe them. According to the August 1962 Kansas City Star accounts, the kids weren’t sure themselves what they had seen, and—worried about getting into trouble—they mentioned it to no one for several days. But one girl finally spoke up to her mother, and the police were notified. They came reluctantly, but when they arrived at the tower they climbed to the top and confirmed the story.

Extraction was difficult, there being no way for responders to get inside and retrieve the body. The windows at the top were too small for a lift, and there was no “door” at ground level. Then someone from the water department remembered a manhole on the side of the tower near the base that had been used during its construction and then plastered over. Workers started chipping away at the spot until they found the cover, then a torch was used to cut off the metal cap.

Finally inside, they found the body of twenty-year-old James Everett Royse, who lived nearby. He had been missing almost nine months, according to his mother. Royse had been walking home from a routine doctor’s appointment in Waldo. A friend of the boy’s confirmed that he and Royse had been to the tower the night Royse disappeared.

Outdated, expensive, physical hazard, crumbling construction, no obvious purpose. So why is the tower still here?

After the tragedy, it almost wasn’t. Not surprisingly, the city and its engineering experts focused on the tower’s instability, the hazards and the cost of maintenance and declared it should be torn down. But not even the recent tragedy swayed neighbors from fighting for the Waldo Tower. The process took a long time, time enough as it turned out for the neighbors to have the tower declared a landmark by the American Water Works Association in August of 1975. The Waldo Tower would not be deliberately torn down. Keeping it from falling down was another matter entirely. Except for neighborhood complaints, there was little incentive for the Water Department to repair the tower and little in the way of money to pay for it.

In 2009, a group of neighbors collaborated to form the Waldo Tower Historic Society. Over the next few years, the Society took a deliberately incremental approach to saving the tower, beginning with an engineering assessment of its condition. The principal threat was the exterior, although there were other repairs that were needed, and grander ideas for incorporating new uses into the structure. In the last decade, using a combination of a significant share of donations and contributions of goods and services, then leveraging those resources to access pots of city funding for public infrastructure and support from city departments, the Tower has been stabilized, and the tower’s appearance has not just restored but improved.

Drive by some evening to see how the tower has been lit, making it Waldo’s smaller version of the old Kansas City Power & Light Building’s lighted tower. Planning for the tower continues, however. Supporters hope to one day install an elevator to the top, so that everyone can get a new and amazing view of the city around them.

(Featured photo: Contemporary aerial view of the Waldo Tower. Courtesy the KCMO Parks Department)

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