Historic Alcatraz Tower Gets a Strange New Look

National Park Service begins restoration of famed San Francisco island.

By Joe Rosato Jr.
|  Tuesday, Nov 15, 2011  |  Updated 6:14 PM PDT
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Sevengill Shark Caught Near Alcatraz Island

A view of the tower from the top of the historic cell block. Photo by Joe Rosato Jr.

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No, it’s not a spaceship. No, they’re not building a hotel on Alcatraz. No, it’s not always going to look like a plastic version of Coit Tower.

Those are just some sample observations the National Park Service may soon start fielding as it begins restoration work on Alcatraz Island’s historic water tower. The 1940 tower is in sad shape after weathering seventy years of salt air and wind. So restorers plan to stabilize the structure, replace missing parts and give it a good paint job.

But here’s where it gets funky: after encasing the 94-foot tower in scaffolding, workers will wrap the whole thing in white tarps while they work. According to an artist’s rendering, the whole tower will look something like a Cristo art project.  The Parks Service is already anticipating folks on the mainland concocting all manner of fanciful tales to explain the sight.

"People can see Alcatraz from all over," said Alexandra Picavet of the National Park Service, the one who will probably get a lot of the calls. "They will notice this large white structure which will seem to appear overnight."

Inside the tarps, workers will be figuring out exactly how trashed the old tower really is. They’ll also be removing fun stuff like lead paint and other 1940s-era innovations. Once the tower is repainted with marine paint, the restorers will turn to some modern additions.

The tower still bears graffiti from the island’s 18-month occupation by Native Americans at the end of the sixties. Once the tower is painted, the Park Service will attempt to recreate the graffiti in its current location. The service has been meeting with Native American tribes to figure out if the graffiti has significance.  

"It says ‘free Indian land -- Indians welcome,'"said Picavet. "It has a lot of political statements that were important to the tribes that were out here."

The tower restoration is just one of several projects currently underway on Alcatraz. Workers are installing dozens of solar panels on the roof of the cell block. The panels will provide 60 percent of the island’s electricity. There’s also work inside the cell block to stabilize the ceiling.  

On an island where everything is old, the repairing stops. “There’s an awful lot of maintenance work that’s required to keep everything standing,” said Jason Hagin, the National Park Service’s historic architect on Alcatraz. “Safety really is the issue.” 

The water tower is scheduled to be wrapped up starting this week. It will stay that way until late March or May when the project is done.

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