55 Malcolm Ave. SE
Minneapolis, MN 55414
Nearby Recreation Center: Luxton Recreation Center
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Major investments at Central Gym Park in 2018 were made possible with funding from the 20-Year Neighborhood Park Plan. This historic agreement between MPRB and the City of Minneapolis helps address racial and economic equity across 160 neighborhood parks and provides $11 million annually to maintain, repair and replace facilities.
The Water Tower
Visible from miles around, the “Witch’s Hat” water tower was designed by Frederick W. Cappelen and constructed on one of the highest points in the city. Completed in 1914, it was placed on the National Register of Historic Places in 1997. Capable of holding 150,000 gallons of water, the tower served area residents until 1952.
The 60-foot-tall tower is topped with a 51-foot-tall steeply pitched conical roof of green tiles. The tower’s octagonal-shaped observation deck of Romanesque windows is open one day a year, during the Pratt Ice Cream Social, which is held across the street at the Pratt Community School – typically the first Friday evening after Memorial Day.
Name: The park was formally named St. Anthony Heights by the park board on January 18, 1908. The Committee on Designation and Acquisition of Grounds had recommended on December 23, 1907 that the park be named Tower Hill, but the full board rejected that name. However, acquiescing to a petition from residents of the area, the park board renamed the park Tower Hill on April 19, 1909.
The name refers to a private tower once located on the hill, not the “Witch’s Hat” tower. Anyone who wanted a spectacular view of the city from the tower could climb the steps of the old tower for ten cents. It was demolished before the park board acquired the land. The “Witch’s Hat” water tower was not built until 1913, seven years after the park was acquired and four years after the park was officially re-named. The water tower was not built by the park board, but by the city water department.
Acquisition and Development
Tower Hill was acquired as a park following a petition in late 1905 from residents of the neighborhood. On May 7, 1906 the park board accepted a proposition from the unnamed owner of the property to sell it for $19,500 payable over ten years. The full amount of the purchase price was assessed on property in the neighborhood. The financing terms were approved by the board on May 21, 1906.
In his first annual report as superintendent of parks in 1906, Theodore Wirth noted that the park needed little work. However in 1907, a tennis court was built in the southwest corner of the park, the park’s only level ground.
In his 1908 report, Wirth submitted a plan for the improvement of the park, but noted that the park “will never call for very heavy expenditure for improvements.” His plan included walks to the summit, where he suggested that an observation tower 50-60 feet in height could be built.
The following year Wirth noted that the “steep, abrupt and unsightly gravel banks” along University and Malcolm avenues had been graded to “graceful slopes.” Along with those improvements Tower Hill was added to the park concert schedule for two concerts, which became annual events in the park.
A second tennis court was added to the park in 1912, and backstops were built for both courts. Tennis balls must have rolled forever down the surrounding streets until those backstops were built. Most early tennis courts in the park system were built without backstops. Most were also not provided with nets; players had to bring their own.
Wirth suggested in the 1910 annual report that if a water tower were to be built on Tower Hill, it should be planned to serve as an observatory, too. His reference to a water tower suggests that it was already being discussed at that time.
Three years later, the city council requested permission to build a water tower in the park, one of the highest pieces of ground in the city, and it was completed in 1914 with what Wirth called “a very roomy observation platform” that provided a “magnificent view.”
When the water tower, now called the “Witch’s Hat” for its conical roof, opened in 1914, the city council requested that the park board provide a caretaker for the park so the tower could be open to the public. The park board complied, employing a caretaker at the park five days a week.
After the construction of the tower, Wirth’s prediction that Tower Hill would never require “heavy expenditure” proved true. In the next sixty-five years, the park board spent less than $1,000 on improvements for the park, however the city spent $13,000 in repairs after lightning struck the tower in 1955 and caused structural damage to the upper portion. Other park improvements—laying walks, building retaining walls, and resurfacing tennis courts—were done by federal work-relief crews in the 1930s. The park gained 0.17 acres in 1950 when Malcolm Street was closed.
In 1979, Tower Hill got a bit of attention from the park board when it corrected erosion problems on the steep slopes of the park. More extensive improvements were made to Tower Hill Park in 1995, which resulted in the park winning an award from the Committee on Urban Environment.
In 1996, the neighborhood submitted an application to put the park and water tower in the National Register of Historic Places. The listing was granted in 1997.
The most recent addition to Tower Hill park was the installation of a prairie garden by the park board in 2000, with an agreement that it would be maintained by the Prospect Park Garden Club.
Owing to its steep terrain, Tower Hill is one of the few parks in the city that has remained primarily for passive recreation use, rather than being converted to more active uses. Nearby Luxton Park, a few blocks down the hill, which was acquired in 1912, became the playground for the neighborhood.
In 2011 the park was one of three sites where stingless wasps were released to help combat Emerald Ash Borer. The wasp is a natural enemy of the ash borer.
The tower in the park is now opened one day a year during the Pratt neighborhood picnic.
History through 2008 written by David C. Smith, with updates from 2009 to present written by MPRB.