The blue La Grande Water Tower on the hill above the Excelsior District, February 2020.
On the hills above the Excelsior, on the northwestern edge of McLaren Park, sits one of the city’s most underappreciated landmarks: La Grande Tank, or La Grande Water Tower. Built in 1956, this significant piece of water infrastructure has more likely been called “that blue tower” in at least one of your conversations over the years. Even Google Maps, which has a habit of renaming neighborhoods, has christened the structure “The Blue Water Tower.” Despite its striking Tiffany-blue color and that most city residents have seen it while driving by on Interstate 280, La Grande has remained relatively obscure to city residents.La Grande Tank, just up from La Grande Avenue in the Excelsior, “provides water pressure for the area” according to Walter Jebe Sr.’s book on the Excelsior District. Water is pumped up to the Tank and stored – since the city is on a hill the water needs some help getting up the hill. When it was first constructed, the design was considered “sleek” and modern, and residents were additionally pleased with it because it had the advantageous side effect of improving TV reception to residents.1 At the time of construction, the 350,000 gallon steel water tank was serving 400 homes in the area. A notice in the San Francisco Call-Bulletin in 1956 declared that “McLaren Park has been invested with a monument that is as utilitarian as it is esthetic [sic]… and looks like a kind of high-calorie Coit Tower….”2
Detail from “The San Francisco You Should Know,” created by Precita Eyes Muralists in 2009 to acknowledge the history of the Excelsior District and the heritage of its residents. The mural, which sits on the side of the Central Drug Store building at 4494 Mission St, features La Grande Tank perched above other Excelsior landmarks.
La Grande Tank is commemorated fondly in local works of art, like the Precita Eyes Muralists’ “The San Francisco You Should Know” just off of Mission Street in the Excelsior’s commercial district.
A block print created at the closing reception of Ascension in the Excelsior, an interactive project from artist Alyssa Avilez documenting the Excelsior community.
In 2008, the SF Public Utilities Commission (PUC) completed an almost $7 million seismic upgrade to the Tank. This included the replacement of the Tank itself, with a new 350,000 gallon steel tank, inlet/outlet piping, valves, security fencing, and water quality monitoring systems. Though many locals had also wanted the PUC to upgrade La Grande’s design in the process, instead both sides came together on an “arts enrichment” portion of the upgrade.3 This enrichment included updating McClaren Park’s Philosopher’s Way trail, a 2.7-mile walking loop that stops by LaGrande, and some landscaping around the tank. So when you get the chance, plan a visit to this city landmark, hiding in plain sight, and enjoy a new 270-degree view of the city.
1 From “Excelsior & Portola [draft] Historic Context Statement,” by Hannah Simonson, 2017.
2“San Francisco Water Tank,” San Francisco Call-Bulletin, September 15, 1956 [SFPL, Historic Photograph Collection, San Francisco Parks, McLaren Park – AAA-7012].
3” From “Discovering La Grande Tank in S.F.’s McClaren Park,” by Callie Millner, 2015, SF Gate, https://www.sfgate.com/outdoors/article/Discovering-La-Grande-Tank-in-S-F-s-McLaren-Park-6020475.php.