Final Call: Potawatomi Tower Coming Down

After a third study of Potawatomi Tower, the Wisconsin Department of Natural Resources has determined it must be removed. The decision comes despite one study determining that the tower could be repaired for the same cost as taking it down. 

Three studies have revealed significant wood rot and decay throughout the observation tower at Potawatomi State Park, creating unsafe conditions.

Routine inspections of the tower were conducted in the spring and early winter of 2017. During these inspections, park staff found visual decay and movement of the structural wood tower members. DNR engineering staff were brought in to conduct additional inspections and recommended further review. Constructed in 1932, the 75-foot tower was closed for the season in December 2017.

In February 2018, the U.S. Department of Agriculture Forest Service’s Forest Products Laboratory conducted a visual inspection using nondestructive methods to determine the condition of the wood members and the structural integrity of the tower. Lab officials found significant decay in the structural and nonstructural wood members of the tower and recommended that the tower be closed to the public and dismantled. The tower was permanently closed in the spring of 2018.

The Sturgeon Bay Historical Society commissioned an assessment of the tower in the winter of 2019 that determined that the tower could be repaired by replacing compromised structural components with new wood elements.

Dan Tingley of Wood Research & Development, a firm in Jefferson, Oregon, said the tower could be repaired to serve another 90 years for an equal or lesser cost than reconstructing or tearing it down. He said repair could be completed in as little as 10 days. Restoration to provide stability would cost $100,000, and full tower restoration, including diffusing and staining, would run $250,000.

In the fall of 2019, the DNR, with coordination from the Wisconsin Department of Administration, solicited bids for a third-party independent consultant to review the two reports and provide an assessment and conclusions regarding the tower. The report outlined the following possible options to address the existing Potawatomi Tower: Repair the tower by taking it down and putting it back together with new wood, repair the tower in place, or replace the tower with a new tower.

The department’s legal team determined that all three options outlined in the report would require the tower to be physically accessible in accordance with the Americans with Disabilities Act. The department has made the decision to deconstruct the existing tower and work with partners, including the Sturgeon Bay Historical Society and the public, to explore a future, accessible observation opportunity at the park according to the park’s existing master plan.

“The observation tower at Potawatomi State Park is an important way for people to experience this park,” said Ben Bergey, director of the Wisconsin State Park System. “It is our responsibility to provide these opportunities as well as protect public safety. Decisions such as this are not easy. The science tells us the tower needs to come down; however, we are working with our partners to explore future opportunities.”

Sturgeon Bay Historical Society President Christie Weber said her organization is not giving up on saving the structure yet and is looking forward to reviewing the report. She said the DNR’s legal department recommendation would mean anything with a scratch on it would need to be replaced. 

“The SBHS is relieved that the DNR experts confirmed that Dr. Tingley’s report was accurate, but we disagree with the DNR’s interpretation of historic preservation codes,” Weber said. “Using DNR’s definition of repair versus replacement, nothing in our state parks that’s historical could ever be saved. They place such a low bar on historic preservation.”

Related Organizations