The Leaning Tower of Niles

The Leaning Tower of Pisa has been leaning in the Italian city since the 12th Century.  Closer to home, at 6300 West Touhy Avenue, Chicagoans can visit the Leaning Tower of Niles.

The story begins in 1934 with Robert Ilg, owner of an electric air-ventilating company, who was planning a park for his employees. A water tank was needed for the park’s swimming pool.  According to one story, Ilg decided to house the tank in a Leaning Tower replica as a tribute to Galileo Galilei, the Renaissance scientist who’d carried out experiments at the Italian original.

The Leaning Tower--Pisa version

The Leaning Tower–Pisa version

The Pisa tower leans because it was built on sandy ground—the tilt was a mistake that was never corrected.  Ilg hired a San Francisco engineering firm to construct his tower with a ready-made tilt.  To ensure that the angle would stay constant, they laid a concrete foundation.  The tower itself, made of steel and concrete, was a half-scale model of the marble original, 94 feet tall with a 7-degree tilt.

Robert Ilg died in 1964.  He left the tower and the surrounding land to the YMCA, with the stipulation that the tower had to be maintained for 95 years.  Shortly afterward, a new facility was built on the property called the Leaning Tower YMCA.

Meanwhile, Ilg’s monument was attracting a special sort of notoriety.  The site was just down Touhy Avenue from O’Hare Airport, and travelers on layover could hop in a cab to Niles, snap a few pictures at the tower, and be back at the terminal in less than an hour.  Tightened airport security ended these jaunts.

The Leaning Tower--Niles version

The Leaning Tower–Niles version

Of course, word had filtered back to Pisa that some crazy American had built his own Leaning Tower.  So when Niles officials began pursuing a Sister Cities agreement with Pisa during the 1950s, the Italian city was leery.  Why should a prosperous metropolis of 100,000 people join with a “grape-stomping village?”  After Pisan officials finally visited Niles in 1991, the Sister Cities pact was signed.

The Italian city was having structural problems with its 800-year old tower then.  About the same time its much-younger American replica was having its own problems. Public access to the interior had to be closed.

In 1995 the Village of Niles leased the tower from the YMCA.  The village spent $1.2 million on repairs and renovation. A 30-foot reflecting pool and four fountains were added, and the landmark appeared to be saved.

That was nearly two decades ago.  Last year a new study determined that the tower needed further repairs, with an estimated price tag of $600,000.  Pisa has spent nearly $30 million to restore its own tower in recent years, so we can be reasonably sure that funds will be available to preserve our local Leaning Tower.

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