Friday, January 19, 1996
Water station, gas station might not mix

BY CLIFF RADEL
The Cincinnati Enquirer

Beep! Beep! Beep!

Looking like a long-necked dinosaur on tank treads, the track hoe sounds its ''Stand clear! I'm backing up'' alarm. Then it takes another bite from the remains of the old corner grocery store at the intersection of Colerain and North Bend in the heart of Mount Airy.

At street level, the alarm and the massive hoe combine to make a succession of horrible, chewing sounds. A piece of neighborhood history bites the dust as the hoe fills its jaw with crumpled grocery shelves, empty boxes of Jack Daniel's Country Coolers and one soiled and tattered strand of gold Christmas garland.

Away with the old store. Make way for the new . . . a Thornton's gas station with 16 pumps, bright lights, a mini-mart and a 28-foot-tall street sign.

With the gas station comes a stink raised by some of its neighbors. The Mount Airy Town Council opposes the station on the grounds that it's going to bring in congestion, noise and crime to the area and contribute to the further deterioration of an intersection that already sports an abandoned gas station.

The city of Cincinnati issued Thorton's a building permit anyway, taking the position the station would be a good addition. The town council is mulling over whether to appeal.

The council and others in the neighborhood fear the pumps, the sign and the bright lights will detract from Mount Airy's beloved water tower. In 1991, the council raised $50,000 to light up the 70-year-old landmark whose six Medieval-style towers and curving, seven-story tall red-brick battlements sit impressively and impassively, in all of their castle-esque glory, on a hill kitty-corner to the planned gas station.

This is no ordinary hill. At 961.5 feet above sea level, it is the highest spot within Cincinnati's city limits.

This, too, is no ordinary water tower. the Mount Airy Tanks, as they are officially known, top out at 1,055.67 feet above sea level.

While their height and elevation make them the city's highest structure, their architecture makes them one of the city's most recognizable landmarks. Between the six towers, the building's bulging brick walls are topped with battlements notched by crenels, places to shoot arrows and pour boiling oil.

The battlements have never held back invading hordes, only water, 8.3 million gallons of it. And, although it has never literally defended the neighborhood, the water tower is held in high regard by the people who live and work near it.

''You can't avoid it,'' says the Rev. Don Crist, pastor of the tower's next door neighbor, the 105-year-old Mount Airy United Methodist Church. As he sits at his office computer and prepares his sermons, he sees the ''monstrously huge symbol'' looming outside his window as ''the proverbial elephant in the living room. It's so large, you have to love it.''

Don Parks, whose Park Place restaurant faces the water tower, views it as ''the jewel in the queen's crown.''

Gazing out the restaurant's window, waitress Pat Hauser laughs and calls the tower ''that old thing!'' She sees it as ''some place you'd go to get your head chopped off.''

Her irreverence is all an act. She's the same woman who painted a sedate night scene of the tower. Her work of art hangs in the restaurant on a wall next to a framed jigsaw puzzle of another famous landmark, London's Tower Bridge.

''It's magnificent,'' sighs real estate agent Joanne Thueneman, marveling at the way the water tower dominates the view from the picture window in her office. ''You can see it from almost everywhere.''

Hello, down there

During a recent snowstorm, she went to the window of her College Hill home. As she watched the city disappear under a blanket of white, ''I could see the water tower glowing on the hill.''

Looking up at the tower provides a wonderful sight. Looking down from it is even better. This vantage point puts everything - including the site for a new Thornton's gas station - into sharp focus.

You reach this point of view after climbing seven flights of stairs inside the far-north tower. It is impossible to work up a sweat. Climbers are constantly cooled by the tanks' liquid contents.

''This is a great place to work in the summertime,'' says Bill Beiting. ''With all this water, it's always cool.'' A plant supervisor for Cincinnati Water Works, he's the tower's unofficial tour guide - since the landmark's roof is off-limits to the public.

After taking the 117 steps to the top, Mr. Beiting opens the door to the roof. Sunlight splashes across six white towers and the domed aluminum lids of 14 water tanks.

Squeezing past the tanks and stepping over glacierlike piles of slow-melting snow, it's just a short haul up a steel ladder and into the southern tower. An archway offers a glimpse of a tiny downtown Cincinnati to the south. To the north, there's massive Mount Rumpke - the garbage dump that is Greater Cincinnati's highest man-made point.

Almost directly below, that beastly track hoe looks like an ant. Its menacing ''beep'' sounds as loud as the wake-up alert on a watch.

Breaking the silence, Bill Beiting softly announces: ''Up here, I stand in awe of how small I am.''

He points to the surrounding hills and valleys. ''From here, you see what affects millions of people. Yet, it shows how little we are in comparison with the rest of the world. It puts things in perspective.''

Since he has visited the roof at least twice a year for nearly three decades, he thinks he knows why the tower is so well-loved.

''You can go anywhere in the city and find your way back home, just by looking at this tower,'' he says while planting his feet on the thick dome covering a 30,000-gallon tank of water.

''This is solid. It shows stability, permanence. It's not the house or the building that was built 20, 30 or 40 years ago and is going to get torn down.''

He nods to what's left of the grocery store down below. Then he pats a sturdy wall.

Like many of the tower's Mount Airy neighbors, he knows this is not just an overgrown water bottle. It's a landmark that directs your heart to a place called home.

Cliff Radel's column appears in The Enquirer Monday, Wednesday and Friday. Available to speak to groups. Tips and comments most welcome. Call 768-8379 or fax at 768-8340.