Restored water tower near Red Wing underscores arts center's history, vitality

25December 2021

RED WING — You’ve surely noticed it if you’ve ever been among the 20,000 people who make the daily drive along Hwy. 61 on the edge of Red Wing, just a few cliffy miles from the Mississippi River.

The iconic 115-foot water tower at the Anderson Center is an architectural beauty. The red-brick tower stretches high over the 350-acre Tower View estate, which was built a century ago and hosted A.P. Anderson’s some 15,000 cereal experiments for Quaker Oats Company. (Anderson invented puffed rice, a revolutionary product when it was introduced at the 1904 World’s Fair in St. Louis.) Anderson’s self-sufficient estate served as his family home, his research center and a working farm, and the water tower stored about 24,000 gallons of water.

However, only a few years ago, that water tower was falling apart.

Specifically, the water tower’s unusual circular balcony was falling apart. Drainage problems had caused “spalling,” where rock and concrete were flaking off over time. It was still structurally sound, but it wouldn’t remain that way if the problem went unfixed.

So the Anderson Center, a community gathering place and art incubator on the historic estate, embarked on a five-year restoration project. Bad concrete had to be jackhammered and removed, then the wall of the balcony had to be repoured, then the water tower had to be repainted — all to meticulous historic specifications. Workers had a 400-page manual of historic standards to follow.

“If you do it wrong, you can cause more damage for the thing you’re trying to preserve,” said Stephanie Rogers, executive and artistic director for the Anderson Center. “Using the wrong paint or mortar can alter the way these structures are. These were built so well in early 1900s. The construction here was top notch, by craftsmen who really knew what they were doing.”

The project cost about $350,000, with a significant portioncoming from a grant from the Minnesota Historical Society, and was completed earlier this fall.

“It’s working at that height that can be so difficult,” said Joe Loer, the Anderson Center’s property and finance director.

The restoration of the tower underscores the importance of the Anderson Center to Red Wing and Goodhue County. Eight of the 20 buildings on campus are on the National Register of Historic Places, but it’s the estate’s modern usage that proves its worth. The center hosts artists on two- to four-week residencies from May to October. Area artists rent out studio space. A music school is run out of a renovated chicken coop. In the leadup to the holidays, an art gallery displays a holiday show. A renovated barn hosts concerts, and a recently renovated back deck will be used for outdoor concerts and movie nights.

The center hosts a children’s book festival every fall, and part of the space is leased to an alternative high school of about 60 students. A majority of the estate’s land is a nature preserve in the Cannon River bottoms. During the COVID-19 pandemic, the center’s leaders have emphasized that its grounds are open to the public, including a 15-acre sculpture park that’s become a magnet for area families.

As important as it is for the Anderson Center to preserve its founder’s legacy and to embark on restoration projects like the old water tower, that’s only part of its mission.

“It’s not a museum,” Rogers said. “Our goal is not to preserve things exactly as they were in the 1920s. Our goal is to utilize these incredible resources to support arts and ideas in the 21st century.”

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