The Swedish American Museum water tank is parked in the institution's lot.
The Swedish American Museum water tank is parked in the institution's lot. Credit: Andrew Nawrocki

When the Swedish American Museum’s leaky water tank had to be removed from the institution’s roof in late March, the city’s historically Swedish enclave lost its blue-and-yellow beacon; the museum, meanwhile, lost its sprinkler system’s water source in addition to its parking lot. Dominated by the bulky wood tub trimmed with caution tape, the lot has been closed to vehicles as SAM tries to pull together the necessary funds to repair the tank and return it to the rooftop perch, where, though not functioning, it would serve as a sign. It’s not a cheap operation, with an estimated $150,000 price tag equivalent to nearly 12 percent of the museum’s annual budget.

But in several weeks, SAM has managed to raise more than $30,000. The money has come in dribs and drabs from contributions on the museum’s website; a successful Groupon Grassroots campaign that brought in more than $7,000; sales of magnets, posters, and postcards in the gift shop; collection cans at local businesses; and special events at neighborhood mainstays like Hamburger Mary’s, which donated proceeds from a recent Hambingo night to save the water tank.

“It’s been overwhelming to see how many people care so deeply,” says SAM spokesperson Lesli Nordstrom. The collective effort is evidence to her that there’s much more at stake than an old water barrel. “This is a landmark for Andersonville,” Nordstrom says, “a nod to our heritage and a symbol for the neighborhood that we’re preserving.” Before the tank’s removal, the Andersonville Chamber of Commerce had unveiled a silhouette of the water tower as its logo; the tank’s image also serves as a symbol for Andersonville Brewing and it appears in ads promoting Midsommarfest. “I live in Evanston and drive to work, and it doesn’t really feel like I’m driving into Andersonville,” Nordstrom says. “There’s definitely something missing.”

Water tanks are going missing from the horizon throughout Chicago, with only about 150 reportedly still in use. Last July a tank fell from the top of the historic Brewster Building in Lakeview, injuring three people. That incident, in part, inspired SAM’s quick action to take down its tank, which sustained underside damage when a built-in heating system failed, causing the water inside to freeze and expand.

Nordstrom says the museum is also flirting with a potentially more affordable fix—building a replica and returning the original tank “to the great beyond.”

On June 1, SAM plans to host a fund-raiser in the parking lot around the tank. The caution tape will be removed, and attendees can queue up for photos with the neighborhood icon.

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