Six years ago, restoring the Waldo Tower looked like a long shot.
The scars, rust and unsafe conditions that blighted the Kansas City icon had accumulated over decades. Fixing it would cost about $900,000, experts said.
That seemed beyond the reach of neighbors who said the once-dignified landmark, located in Tower Park near 75th Street and Holmes Road, had become an eyesore. Taking a fresh interest in the tower in 2009, they began to raise money for repairs, but early efforts showed little promise.
So last Tuesday, Kurtis Marinez, founder of the Waldo Tower Historic Society, smiled as he watched city officials celebrate the first round of work on the old water tower.
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With a fresh coat of paint and a new roof, the 95-year-old tower looked almost new again. More noticeable to most people would be the new lights, in alternating colors, to be installed this summer.
There is more that Marinez would like to see done, but to get even this far has taken a lot of work.
“It has, but we’ve made some progress,” Marinez said. “I kind of knew that it was going to take a long time.
“It can be quite grueling.”
The tower’s makeover is largely the result of Marinez’s labor. For years he lobbied City Hall, appearing regularly with his plans and drawings of what the tower could look like if Kansas City showed it a little love.
Many residents know the tower, even if they can’t recall much about it. Built in 1920, it was an innovative example of reinforced concrete construction and served the city with clean water until it was closed in 1957.
After that, Waldo Tower became neglected. More than 20 years have passed since city workers climbed to the top to decorate it with lights for the holiday season.
Without that care, the tower turned into an object for graffiti and grim stories. In August 1962, boys playing on the tower found a body inside. Workers used a jackhammer to open a hole in the bottom of the tower as hundreds of spectators looked on.
They removed the body of a 20-year-old man who had been missing since the previous November. For many years, the patch over that hole was still visible.
The years since were not always kind. Neighbors complained that the tower looked like a post-apocalyptic ruin.
As Marinez sought help at City Hall, he endured jokes about Waldo’s answer to the Leaning Tower of Pisa and the gargoyles that might live inside it. At one point, his efforts to seek funding were set back a year when a redrawn city map put the tower in a new City Council district.
Eventually, Marinez said, he found allies in City Council members John Sharp and Scott Taylor.
With their backing, the city set aside $850,000 to renovate the tower, most of it through the city’s Public Improvements Advisory Committee, said Heidi Downer, spokeswoman for the Parks and Recreation Department.
Sharp said the city was in a far better position now to find money for the tower than it had been in 2009, amid the Great Recession.
“Times were awfully tough financially for individuals who might contribute voluntarily, and the city,” he said.
He credited Marinez with sticking with the project for years until better times came, and doing much of the hard work to get city backing for it. But support also came from people throughout the nearby neighborhoods, he said.
The first phase of work has already been completed, including the roof, the paint job, concrete repairs, new bird screens and a new ladder on the outside.
Next, beginning Wednesday, workers are scheduled to install a new access door and interior ladder for workers, along with new lamp posts and decorative fencing around the tower.
The work is expected to be finished by October. New, colorful lights to be installed atop the tower would make it visible from miles around.
Marinez and his supporters still hope for more, imagining public movie nights in Tower Park and an elevator in the tower to take visitors to a lookout point at the top.
There is no money in the budget for an elevator or stairs. But the tower is at least, once again, something neighbors can look at with pride.