Towering Above the Rest

 The plans of a former radio host in Tomsk to live in a water tower  01/21/2014, 15:37
Towering Above the Rest
Photography by Vera Salnitskaya

Near Yuzhnaya Square in Tomsk stands a water tower. It is no different from thousands of similar ones, scattered around the outskirts of most Russian cities. They are often found near train stations, as they supplied water for steam locomotives. Today these century-old structures, like steam engines, are a thing of the past. Almost all are destroyed or filled with litter. A few — in St. Petersburg and Vladimir — have been turned into museums. This water tower in Tomsk could be the first to become someone’s home. Sib.fm’s correspondents visited Aleksandr Lunev, the owner of a future custom castle and found out how to buy a centenarian monument of history and culture, why it has tunnels and where they lead to.

A year after the water tower’s transfer into private hands, it seems that it hasn’t undergone any superficial changes. What’s more, it’s still has a sign offering a «New summer café overlooking the River Tom», as it did 20 years ago. Inside, the building looks very similar to a normal old brick garage, until you look up — there’s another 20 metres to the ceiling.

1,5 million roubles ($44,600) — the price Aleksandr Lunev paid for the water tower and plot of land

This almost fairy-tale story began prosaically. In the spring of 2012, friends suggested Lunev look at a notice on the Mayor’s Office website about renting a non-residential property. This property was no less than an old water tower.

«I found the head of the agency at the Mayor’s Office that was responsible for property and started to pester him, saying that no one was going to rent this property and it would be better to sell it,» says Aleksandr. «Deputies in the City Duma started saying, ’It’s a listed building! You might do something bad to it!’ All right, as if nothing bad had already happened: it hasn’t been repaired for 30 years. In fact, it’s never been repaired, they just changed the windows in the 1980s.»

Aleksandr spent 8 months on the bureaucratic merry-go-round.

In the end, Aleksandr became the proud owner of a historical site 23 metres in height. An old outbuilding, which is more like a barn, came free with the tower, alongside a number of obligations to the state.

After buying the tower, it became clear that Lunev’s large-scale plans — to install another row of windows in the brick part of the tower and plant a lawn on the a roof — would remain just that.

The state, which didn’t want to have anything to do with the building when it was gradually falling apart for years, only authorised reconstruction on the condition that the historic appearance of the tower would be preserved.

Over the past year, Lunev has single-handedly cleaned the tower from top to bottom (he had to get rid of more than eight tons of rubbish, soil, pigeon droppings and bird skeletons), poured a concrete floor instead of the old wood one, redone the upper floor, dug out the cellar and found two secret tunnels.

The story of the first and tallest water tower on Novosibirsk’s left bank

«The cellar was a real discovery!» says the owner of the tower. «There’s a narrow tunnel with a pipe. It turned out that it leads to the nearby train station. I accidentally discovered that the tower is still supplied with water by a pipe that is 118 years old. There was no water in the area at all — we thought we’d have to lay some new pipeline. So when we unearthed the two pipes in the cellar, I suggested cutting them down. After all, there’d been no water there for 20 years, at least. We cut it and water gushed out like a fountain! Well, I think, it’s probably just some residual pressure in the old systems, we’ll have to wait a bit... Two hours later, we were standing in a swimming pool.

Now the tower has water. Alexander says that having a 118-year old water pipe is no less honourable than owning the tower itself.

1 metre is the thickness of the brick walls in Lunev’s tower

The light ladder creaks treacherously and seems that it will move away from the wall any minute. We crawl upwards, covered in brick dust.

By the way, there’s no need to hope that the fully renovated tower will have a safe staircase with strong railings. That would be too easy for Lunev.

«In the end, I want to have each step sticking out of the wall separately. They won’t be linked together with banisters or stair posts. I’ll be sitting upstairs, doing an evil laugh and throwing lightning bolts,» Lunev quips. «Be careful on the planks that make up the floor and don’t jump, because one beam is hanging in the air.»

After renovating the tower, Aleksandr plans to create a recreation area around the historical landmark and open the tower to visitors once a week.

«I’m going to peck the district and city administration like a woodpecker to get normal asphalt, a pedestrian area and trees here. If there’s a beautiful tower, little pieces of civilisation will start to gradually spread out around it. That’s how we’ll gradually conquer the entire city and country.»

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«Any intelligent person in our country with our political system, especially considering what’s been happening for the last 10-15 years, has two options: pack your bags or stay. If you pack your bags, that means you have to think up a life abroad — who’s going to need you and what can you do that will come in handy over there. At the end of the day, you’re hardly going to achieve anything serious. So I still have the intention to stay and do something here,» declares Siberian Lunev. «Of course, it’s all pointless, I understand that it’s impossible to change the country, or even the city, in my lifetime. But maybe it will work for one little street. If the city has a dozen psychopaths like me, it will definitely be a nice and comfortable place to live.»

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