Many readers of The JOLT may not be aware of recent news from southeast Thurston County: Yelm. Olympia is well known for the iconic state capital building, Lacey is building a railroad station to represent ties to its past, and Tumwater’s connections to the Falls and Brewery are classic.
Now Yelm has a newly restored, iconic symbol with the recent restoration and dedication of its historic water tower.
As a Yelm arts advocate, Steve Craig always says, “Everything always starts with a conversation.” Steve served on the Board of the now-dissolved Yelm Business Association (YBA) as the Arts Committee Chair, and first suggested in 2016 that the dilapidated and decommissioned Yelm water tower could have both historic and artistic significance. The 125-foot-tall, 50,000-gallon water tower was built in 1946 by the Chicago Bridge and Iron Company, and is one of a dwindling number of such water towers in the United States. This is the same company that built the iconic Warner Brothers Water Tower in Burbank, CA.
Doors opened for Craig, as he contacted several people throughout his mission to promote his idea of saving the tower, which was being considered for demolition by the city. Craig formed the non-profit “Save the Historic Yelm Water Tower” group and they succeeded in getting the tower onto the state’s historic register, the only such tower to have that status in Washington State. The group then garnered $150,000 in state money to be used to refurbish the structure; Craig credits Washington State Rep. J.T. Wilcox for sponsoring the project and getting it into the state’s capital budget.
Craig turned again to Rep. Wilcox with a proposal to illuminate the tower with computerized lighting inspired by the Seattle Space Needle. Wilcox was then successful in securing $300,000 in the next capital budget for lighting, fencing, landscaping and an interpretive kiosk. The LED computerized lighting system came from the Czech Republic.
The City of Yelm held a ribbon-cutting ceremony commemorating the restoration on November 23, 2021, at the Yelm Community Center, which faces the tower. The ceremonial light was turned on at dusk to the music from 2001 Space Odyssey, as the tower lighted Yelm’s night sky.
The Yelm City Council created an Arts Commission in 2021 to which Craig was appointed and elected Chair. He envisions the Historic Yelm Water Tower being utilized as an artistic anchor and stimulus for creativity benefiting the entire Yelm community well into the future. “The art part is that we’re going to use colorful computerized lighting so that we can have a variety of different displays depending on the occasion, such as New Year’s Eve, 4th of July and Seahawks games. I believe not only is it going to be a historic icon, it’s going to be an art piece that people will appreciate year-round,” Craig added. He has received feedback from the state arts commission that Yelm’s tower may now be eligible for the Governor’s Arts and Heritage Award by combining art with history, something the Yelm Arts Commission may pursue.
At the base of the tower will be an interpretive display that will give visitors the history of Yelm’s iconic symbol, joining with the historic structures in Olympia, Lacey and Tumwater. The water tower is located in downtown Yelm, across the street from Yelm City Hall.
Steve Klein publishes the Yelm Community Blog
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