Midtown Raleigh News

Lawyers restore old Raleigh Water Tower downtown

Attorney Ryan Adams sits in his granite-walled office inside the Raleigh Water Tower.
Attorney Ryan Adams sits in his granite-walled office inside the Raleigh Water Tower. ccampbell@newsobserver.com

Some think it resembles Rapunzel’s tower. Some wonder if it’s a lighthouse mistakenly built two hours inland. And others drive by it daily without noticing it at all.

Built in 1887 to serve the city’s first water system, the old Raleigh Water Tower is one of downtown’s oldest and most unusual buildings. But unlike the Capitol building a few doors down Morgan Street, it’s not open for tours. Many don’t see it at all – the hulking, windowless AT&T building next door hides it from one-way traffic on Morgan.

The tower’s owners, attorneys Ryan Adams and Graham Shirley, still can’t believe their luck at snagging the landmark for $635,000 three years ago. They’ve since renovated the tower and the surrounding buildings to better show off their historic character.

Not many lawyers get a granite-walled octagonal office at the top of a winding staircase.

“It’s a great place to come to work in the morning because it’s so different,” Shirley said.

The building’s new life as a law firm is just the latest chapter in its colorful history. When the private Raleigh Water Works first built the tower, it supported a 30-foot iron water tank, making it taller than the state Capitol. The utility company had its office in the attached building facing Morgan Street, while the rear building – now leased to another law firm – was a maintenance shop.

Raleigh’s growth had outstripped the tower’s 100,000-gallon capacity by the 1920s, and city leaders were ready to tear it down in 1938. That’s when architect William Deitrick bought the property and converted it into his office.

Deitrick later donated it to the state chapter of the American Institute of Architects, which kept its headquarters there until it built a bigger space on Peace Street a few years ago.

That’s when the tower hit the real-estate market, where it drew the attention of Shirley and Adams. They were looking to move out of rented space in the Wells Fargo building and wanted to own their own office downtown.

“The timing worked out just about perfectly,” Adams said.

The attorneys set up shop in the rear building while working on the tower renovations in their spare time. They ripped out drop ceilings, pulled up old carpets and sandblasted coats of paint off the 126-year-old granite walls.

Adams, Shirley and a third employee each works on a different floor of the tower; they’ve turned old doors and planks into desks and other furniture. The Morgan Street building holds the firm’s conference rooms. The top half of the tower is unfinished, and the attorneys haven’t decided how to use the space.

Adams said his clients are often surprised when they visit the office. “You say the water tower, they have no idea what you’re talking about,” he said.

The attorneys sometimes get curious passersby knocking on the door with questions. Unfortunately, there’s no way to offer tours because the offices contain sensitive legal documents.

For Adams and Shirley, though, the occasional quirks and hassles of working in an old water tower are worth it. “This is about the coolest thing there is (downtown) other than the Capitol building and the governor’s mansion,” Adams said.