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Roadside oddities that catch our attention and then fade into our rearview mirror.

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More Than A Water Tower: The Art, History And Utility Of Alhambra Reservoir

Friday, November 4, 2016 | Permalink
Andrew Nixon / Capital Public Radio

The Alhambra Reservoir.

Andrew Nixon / Capital Public Radio

One hundred and twenty four feet of cylindrical grey concrete rise above the Alhambra Safeway in East Sacramento. You see it whether you’re speeding past on Business 80 Capital City Freeway or crawling by in rush hour traffic.  A bright blue pattern of lines and squares lights up the tower at night.   


One Of The Largest Ever

IMG_9472 A plaque at the base of the Alhambra water tower. Andrew Nixon / Capital Public Radio.

The Alhambra Reservoir, as it’s known in the Sacramento utilities department, is one of the largest reinforced concrete elevated tanks ever constructed (according to Public Buildings: A Survey of Architecture of Projects Constructed by Federal and Other Governmental Bodies Between the Years 1933 and 1939 with Assistance of Public Works). It’s one of a trio of such structures in Sacramento, the other two are near Sacramento City College and the UC Davis Medical Center.

In addition to storing water and creating proper water pressure for the surrounding houses and businesses, the reservoir has also been a training ground for firefighters, a blood bank, a public art canvas and a cellphone tower. Plus it has been camouflaged.

047_19850243446During WWII the tanks were painted camouflage. It’s not known if this was more in solidarity with the war time effort or if there was really fear of an air strike. Center For Sacramento History / Catalogue #1985/024/3446


Providing Water Pressure for East Sacramento

“The city got their money’s worth, I mean, these things are operating and they still work great,” says Ed Silva, water treatment expert with the City of Sacramento. The original project cost $703,554 and was paid for in party by federal funds as part of The New Deal.

Three million gallons of water is held in the top 35 feet of the structure, held up by 44 interior columns arranged in concentric rings. The tank is lined with steel in varying thicknesses.

Michael Bishop is the artist responsible for the blue light markings on the side of the tower. He got to peek inside the water storage space when he was working on the art piece.

“It’s like a donut that’s been sliced in half,” says Bishop about the inside of the water tank. “It’s beautiful… I wanted to swim in it. It’s gorgeous. It’s painted aqua. It’s really spectacular.”

We’d love to show you a picture of this, but the city wouldn’t let us for security reasons. Chris Harvey with the Sacramento Fire Department did let us into the bottom part of the tower.

“There’s an interior staircase that we don’t really have access to, that goes all the way up to the top and the reservoir is actually up above that platform there,” Harvey says as he points up. “And that’s what creates the water pressure for this neighborhood.”

Mike Ragan is a water treatment supervisor for the city of Sacramento - his team has access to the water storage area.  

“Every one-foot of elevation is 2.3 lbs of pressure,” says Ragan, “Engineering wise they were ahead of their time back in the 30s.”

IMG_9424The lower cavern in the Alhambra tower. Andrew Nixon / Capital Public Radio


The East Sacramento Tower Of Blood

Sacramento Fire Department Spokesman Chris Harvey grew up in the neighborhood around the tower.

“When I was a kid all the kids in this neighborhood thought that this was full of blood, because it said ‘Sacramento Blood Bank’ on the front in big letters and it’s this giant tank,” says Harvey, laughing.

The neighborhood kids weren’t entirely wrong. The first floor of the tower was converted into offices for blood bank employees. They stored bags of plasma in the large cavernous part of the tower, “because the water keeps it a really low temperature, so you just keep the plasma in there and there’s very little refrigeration,” artist Michael Bishop explains.

Firefightertraining Firefighters train on and pose in front of the six-story drill tower. Submitted / Sacramento Fire Department


Firefighter’s Training Grounds


IMG_9439The Sacramento Fire Department had a presence on the grounds before the tower was built. A six-story training tower rises adjacent to the tank and for years recruits ran drills up and down the building, now they do most of their training at McClellan Air Force Base.

“Recruits of some of the fire academies would crawl out on these concrete shelves and some of the pillars and spray paint the numbers of their graduating academy,” Harvey says.

After the Blood Bank moved out in the early 2000s, the Fire Department moved into the first floor offices. It’s now the home of the Emergency Medical Services Division.


A Giant Canvas for Public Art


Michael Bishop wasn’t the first artist to use the tower as a canvas. In 1976, artist Horst G. Leissl placed a 12-by-18-foot paper-mache fly on the side of the tower for a week.

Fly -2Top left: Artist Horst G. Leissl sips a beverage while the fly is installed on the water tower. Center for Sacramento History / 1983/001/SBPMP04951 - Sacramento Bee. Lower left and right: Pictures from a Horst G. Leissl retrospective published in 1989 by the Matrix Gallery.


Bishop’s piece, commissioned by the city in 2005 was intended to be more permanent than Leissl’s fly. The artwork represents an aerial view of the river and the delta coming into the city, the circle in the middle is the water tower and the squares represent the street grid.

For Bishop, installing the art piece was a challenge.

“I’ve never worked that high before, I’ve never worked on the side like this,” says Bishop. “As an artist I have a lot of expertise, but I don’t have any expertise in putting something like 100 feet in the air.”

The sculpture features 2,000 feet of aqua-blue LEDs. The lights in the circle rise and lower to represent the water within the tank.

37c .Alhambra D3The Alhambra tower at night. Michael Bishop Sculpture / Courtesy

“What I really wanted to do was to put a leveling device in there so you had real time what the water use was, but they wouldn’t let me do that,” says Bishop. It was a security issue.

Instead Bishop has timed the light animation with the legal speed limit you’d drive on Business 80. From one end of Business 80 where the tower is visible to the other would be one full rotation.

So the next time you drive down Business 80 past the Alhambra Reservoir at night, watch for the animated blue circle, filling and emptying in time to the traffic. 

Melody Stone

Former Interactive Producer

After working in newspapers and doing print journalism for years, Melody transitioned into digital marketing and design. With a healthy blend of journalistic and digital media skills she builds out interactive web stories for  Read Full Bio 

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