O.C. historic preservationist purchases Seal Beach’s historic water tower
Many Orange County residents have seen Seal Beach’s historic water tower from afar, but when the details of the landmark are examined more closely, they tell the story of its varied past.
The 87-foot-tall structure at 1 Anderson St. was built in 1892, and that year is carved on the front door along with the years 1940, 1985 and 2016.
“It was built by the Southern Pacific Railroad to supply water to the steam engines coming from Santa Barbara to San Diego,” said Dr. Gregg DeNicola, an Orange County historic preservationist who recently purchased the water tower with his wife, Mary, for $4.5 million.
Every 10 miles or so, the trains needed to be refueled with water to create steam.
“There were actually dozens of these built along the coast,” DeNicola said.
The year 1940 is carved on the door to mark the year the tower was enlarged to a 75,000-gallon redwood tank by Santa Fe Tank & Pipe Co. to store water for surrounding towns.
By the 1970s the tower was considered an eyesore, infested with termites and covered in graffiti.
The city began making plans to dismantle the structure, but a local resident named George Armstrong galvanized the community to save it. Armstrong was a Long Beach City College math professor, but before that he bussed tables at Sam’s Seafood across the street from the water tower.
“He tried grassroots, and there were pickets going up and down the street,” DeNicola said.
Armstrong was able to buy the tower, thus saving it from demolition.
“However he was not out of the woods,” said DeNicola. “As soon as the city approved to keep it, the Coastal Commission got involved.”
Armstrong planned to turn the water tower into a house, which the Coastal Commission eventually agreed to allow as long as it continued to look like a water tower.
“He hired a historical contractor to make it look like it used to look but be a house,” DeNicola said.
Rather than haul equipment up and use cranes for the buildout, the tower was taken down from the base and converted into a trilevel house on the ground before being placed back. The “1985" carved on the door signifies the year the tower reopened as a home.
In 1992, Armstrong sold the tower to then Lynwood Fire Chief Jerry Wallace, who lived in the house for 11 years.
“He put it on the market four times between 1994 and 2012,” said DeNicola.
It wasn’t until 2016, the last year carved on the door, that Wallace sold the tower to real estate investors Scott Ostlund and Barret Woods for $1.5 million. The partners restored the home and opened it up for tours and vacation rentals.
So how did DeNicola become the unusual home’s new owner?
DeNicola has long been committed to the preservation of Orange County history.
He serves on the board of the Laguna Beach Historical Society and started a nonprofit called Citrus Historic and Preservation League (CHAPEL). He also assisted in the preservation and redesign of the packing house in Yorba Linda.
“It was going to possibly be torn down and I restored it to a packing house motif. It is a medical office though,” said DeNicola. “So I have this history thing in me.”
DeNicola came across a feature story in the Wall Street Journal on the water tower, and while he was familiar with the house, it wasn’t on the market. Then a few months later he was working with a Realtor to look for beachfront property, and she sent him a listing for the water tower as a joke. DeNicola told the real estate agent he was actually interested.
The base of the tower houses two two-car garages and a bedroom that was used as quarters for a night watchman.
“When I was kid there were all these Vincent Price movies where you push a button and a weird door opens,” DeNicola said as he wiggles a bookcase ajar to reveal a hallway to a small room.
A waterfall feature pays homage to the structure’s water tower past, and a bathroom is decorated in burlap and barrels.
The elevator goes up to the second floor where there is a deck with a Jacuzzi DeNicola keeps at a toasty 101 degrees.
The elevator then rises to the next level with the kitchen and living room and a deck that circles the tower for a 360-degree view.
“Back then, they needed to be able to get all around it to work,” DeNicola said.
The level also features a pirate-themed room with bunkbeds and a skull-and-crossbones flag.
A spiral staircase leads higher to two master bedrooms and two bathrooms with stained-glass windows.
The rotunda has an aquarium at the entrance and boasts a wet bar, four television sets and a compass designed into the wood floor.
“Tourists had the impression that our beaches faced the west; they really don’t because of the curve. So this is actually south and the sunset happens over,” said DeNicola, motioning to the west.
DeNicola said he plans to continue to make the house available as a vacation rental, when his family is not putting it to use. The property has had four renters since DeNicola acquired it.
“The summer rate is $1,400 a night with a two-night minimum,” DeNicola said.
DeNicola still has a few small repairs he wants to make to the home like a paint touch-up. But there is one other thing he has on his to do list.
“I need to get a welder to scratch my year, 2022, in the door,” he said.
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