Notes from the Observation Deck

by Tom Swift


I like that you can see the St. Paul skyline to the east.

I like that you can see the Minneapolis skyline to the west.

One spot, two cities.

Below are Highland Park, Highland National Golf Course, and the Charles M. Schulz Highland Arena. And green. So much green. A green cloth on which sits the table of reds, browns, yellows, and oranges of October.

I had written this day into my calendar months ago. They only let people go up the Highland Water Tower twice a year. During the Highland Fest community celebration is one time. This, the second weekend in October, is the other.

I told my writing partner we had to go.

I have written about this longitude and latitude before, of my memories of the arena that at that time was called just “Highland.” (Back then Schulz was still alive and pulling the football away from Charlie Brown.) I must have passed beneath the steeple I now stand in a hundred times, two hundred times, without ever going inside, without probably even noticing it was there. You don’t look up in winter as much as you do in summer.

Clarence Wigington designed this tower.

This tower was built in 1928.

This tower is 127 feet high. Erected on a hill, we are elevated some 440 feet.

Wigington’s nickname was “Cap.”

The temperature is 41 degrees. Here at the top — up the winding stairs — it is windy. So it feels colder than 41. You need, in other words, to wear a cap.

Wigington is someone to know for reasons that have nothing to do with his nickname. He was the first African-American municipal architect in the nation. He served as the city of St. Paul’s architect for nearly 35 years. His body of work rates him as worthy of study. He was a pioneer, an artist. He designed dozens of buildings that still stand within city limits, including several on the National Register of Historic Places. Wigington built things that endure.

Wigington also designed places intended to pass away. He created a number of what I understand were striking ice palaces for the annual St. Paul Winter Carnival.

Winter is coming and I have found my spirit brace against its impending arrival. I sense myself want to go into hibernation — constricted body, closed mind, an inclination toward isolation.

Until just a couple of years ago you could go up Wigington’s water tower year-round. For some fifty years after he died, the Highland Water Tower, which held up to 200,000 gallons, pumped water to the city’s residents.

I like to go to the top of buildings. Sometimes a different view of the world around you alters one’s perspective on the landscape within you.

It is closer to winter up in Wigington’s water tower. But I am grateful that I came up here with my friend.

Winter is easier to welcome when you hold close warm memories.