Wood Expert Stabilizes Potawatomi Tower

Six years after it closed to the public due to wood decay, the Potawatomi State Park Observation Tower is now structurally sound, according to the engineer hired by the Wisconsin Department of Administration to preserve the tower.

“We’re done with the structural stabilizing,” said wood expert Dan Tingley with Timber Restoration Services (TRS) out of Oregon, also known as Wood Research and Development.

Tingley’s crew finished the job and demobilized on Monday, Dec. 18. He said 80% of the tower was structurally sound and the stabilization of the rest went smoothly with only one surprise: carpenter ants. 

“When we put our compression wave through the piece we knew something was going on,” he said. “We thought, ‘It’s obviously decay.’ Turned out it wasn’t decay, it was carpenter ants. So we had to fumigate and there’s more of that coming.”

One challenge was finding the same quality materials that were used to construct the tower in 1931.

“The tower itself was designed really well back in the day,” he said. “It wouldn’t be there had they not chosen western cedar, and quarter-sawn, white-oak treads.”

But when they tried to find quarter-sawn, white-oak stair treads – 25 of the 80-some treads needed replacement – they couldn’t find them. Instead, he learned the supplier was sending glued treads.

“So we had to stop the order,” he said. “So we are back out to market.”

Receiving and installing those treads is the only work that remains for his crew in the future. The wait on kind-for-kind replacement is worth it for an historic structure, he said.

“We want to be sure we’re doing the right thing,” he said. 

Christie Weber, past president of the Sturgeon Bay Historical Society Foundation (SBHSF) board who led the drive for the tower’s preservation and drove its successful listing on the state and national Registers of Historic Places, said they’re thrilled the tower is stabilized and thanked both Republican and Democrat leaders for working together to get it done.

“This preservation project exemplifies community spirit and we couldn’t be more thrilled to see the progress,” she said. “Politicians and state agencies, working across the aisle with the entire community, is the only way to really protect our county’s future and preserve its rich history. This historic tower repair is the perfect example of that collective spirit and reward.”

The stabilization of the tower is a different outcome than might have been expected only a year ago when the tower seemed destined for death by stalemate.

The only solution to emerge since the tower’s closure in 2017 came in January 2023 in the form of a conceptual plan for a new tower enfolded by a helical ramp that would cost millions of dollars. In several surveys conducted by the DNR, the public overwhelmingly supported repair of the structure instead. Neither did the multi-million-dollar helical ramp hold any appeal for Door County’s Republican legislators, or for groups like the SBHSF and the Potawatomi Tower Alliance.

Then in late 2023, Gov. Tony Evers ordered the stabilization of the tower using $500,000 in emergency funding and hired Tingley to do the job – the same wood expert SBHSF had hired in 2018 to assess the tower. 

With the stabilization complete, the next phase is more cosmetic, Tingley said, and considers upgrades to prepare the tower for public occupancy.

“It’s not related to whether the tower will fall down,” he said. 

The railings, for example, are a little shorter than most.

“From our point of view, the rail is historic, but they’re concerned it’s not as high as it needs to be or strong enough for people leaning against it,” he said. 

Tingley anticipates he’ll continue to be involved with the project in the immediate future.

“They’re looking for the engineering side to develop the specs for the construction side, and I’ve been asked to be involved in the engineering side for the next leg,” he said.

The Wisconsin Department of Natural Resources (DNR) did not respond by deadline to what happens next. Melissa “Missy” VanLanduyt, DNR recreation partnerships section chief, said in September that the tower would remain closed to the public even after the emergency stabilization until the Department of Administration could design and construct the final phase of the project to make it safe for public use.

For whatever work that follows, there’s $500,000 in the state’s 2023-25 budget for the tower that both Rep. Joel Kitchens (R-Sturgeon Bay) and Sen. André Jacque (R-De Pere) had requested.