KEVIN LEININGER: Fort Wayne’s history is linked to water, and it’s worth preserving

The city's water filtration plant opened in 1933 in the "Collegiate Gothic" style. (News-Sentinel.com file photo)
City Utilities Deputy Director of Operations John Clark left, and filtration plant Superintendent Mike Gierscher inspect the plant's damaged limestone facade. (News-Sentinel.com photo by Kevin Leininger)
Some of the water plant's interior plaster must also be repaired thanks to roof leaks that are also being addressed. (News-Sertinel.com photo by Kevin Leininger)
Kevin Leininger

With a five-mile, $200 million tunnel being bored 250 feet below ground to prevent raw sewage from flowing into the rivers, the cost of maintaining and upgrading Fort Wayne’s aging subterranean utilities is obvious, if not always visible. But some of the city’s above-ground sewer and water facilities also need attention of a less technical, more-aesthetic nature.

They’re getting it, and deservedly so because their true value to the community transcends their utilitarian purpose.

“When this facility was built, the community put its heart and soul into it,” said Mike Gierscher, superintendent of the water filtration plant built at the confluence of the three rivers in 1933 with the help of $2.5 million in municipal bonds repaid through water fees. The well-fed system that had supplied Fort Wayne’s water, including the 5 million gallon storage tank in the hill at Reservoir Park, was no longer adequate but the growing city aspired for more than a reliable source of purified water from the St. Joseph River. So it produced a thing of beauty.

“And we want to keep it that way,” said John Clark, deputy director of operations for City Utilities.

Designed in the “Collegiate Gothic” style by the Ann Arbor, Mich., firm of Hoad, Decker, Shoecraft and Drury, a city history of the filtration plant states it was “originally conceived as simply a factory . . . (but) when designers realized in 1931 that giving the building an architectural flourish would add no more than 2 percent to the total project cost, there was unanimous agreement that (it) should be designed as an architectural landmark.”

Chicago architect Victor Matteson praised the plant’s ability to “furnish pure water in ample quality at reasonable cost and at the same time afford a worthy addition to the architecture of the city of which the citizens may be proud.” But preserving that marriage of form and function is not always easy or inexpensive.

Earlier this month, for example, the Board of Works approved $118,000 to repair portions of the plant’s limestone exterior damaged by a combination of wind, rain and roof leaks. Similar expenditures may be needed in future years, together with smaller repairs at the sewage treatment plant on Dwenger Avenue, the Hosey Dam on the Maumee River near South Anthony Boulevard and the St. Joe River Dam near the Coliseum, all of a similar age and design.

But restoring the deteriorated limestone at the filtration plant requires more than simple patchwork. Stone of a similar shade must be used, and has been found in a quarry near Bedford, Ind., which has also supplied stone to the National Cathedral in Washington, D.C., and other notable structures.

Although some later additions have concrete exteriors designed to mimic the original plant, Clark and Gierscher will take no such shortcuts with limestone repair even though it may add to the cost.

“Would you maintain your house the cheap way — or the right way?” Clark asked.

Where public money is at stake, cost can never be ignored. But within reason, the city is right to preserve the historic and architectural heritage bequeathed to us and future generations by Fort Wayne residents who even in the midst of the Great Depression gave tangible voice to their civic aspirations.

Ironically, the water plant that was to be a point of civic pride is obscured from the river by trees and off-limits to vehicles because of heightened security concerns. It remains accessible from the Rivergreenway and during periodic public tours, but the city hopes to win permission to remove some of the riverfront brush so the filtration plant regains at least some of its visibility.

From its earliest days, Fort Wayne’s history has been inseparable from water: First the three rivers, then the canal, then the utilities needed to sustain a growing city. If you haven’t visited the water or sewer plants yet, plan to do so. It’s a history worth knowing, and preserving.


Mayor Tom Henry’s decision to use Street Department workers to collect trash missed by Red River Waste raises an interesting question: Would such job flexibility have been possible had not Republican members of City Council — over Henry’s veto — not eliminated collective bargaining for most city workers in 2014?

“That would be dependent on the terms of the collective bargaining agreement that was in place, but we are asking for volunteers to work after hours so it would not necessarily implicate the contract,” stated city attorney Carol Helton.

“But (council’s decision) did make it easier (for Henry),” insisted President John Crawford, R-at large, who led efforts to eliminate bargaining for all but public-safety employees.

This column is the commentary of the writer and does not necessarily reflect the views or opinions of The News-Sentinel. Email Kevin Leininger at kleininger@news-sentinel.com or call him at 461-8355.


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