The saga of Milwaukee's water tower dragon
It was like something out of a fairy tale. One day in the fall of 1985, a green and gold dragon appeared on Milwaukee’s East Side.
It was a 30-foot-long, 350-pound sculpture perched on the gothic-looking North Point Water Tower, where North Avenue meets the lake bluff. The dragon’s teeth were bared, and its claws and tail curled around a ledge.
Longtime Milwaukeeans Cookie Anderson and Gretchen Farrar-Foley remember the dragon.
“People came from all over just to see it,” says Gretchen. “It was beautiful. It glistened in the sun.”
Cookie says, “My eyes even now get wider just thinking about it. Every time I go by [the water tower], I think about that dragon.”
Gretchen and Cookie reached out to Bubbler Talk to learn more about the art installation and find out what happened to the dragon.
Once upon a time in 1985
The story of the dragon starts in a dark place: 26-year-old Terese Agnew was a struggling artist who had just dropped out of college at UW-Milwaukee because she couldn’t afford it.
“I was broke, I was lonely, and now I was a college dropout,” Terese recalls.
One day, she was walking to her waitressing job, when she looked up and saw the North Point Water Tower.
“It’s this beautiful castle-like structure on a hill. It’s very grand,” Terese says. “So, I just stopped in my tracks and I thought, ‘Wow. That would look good with a dragon on it.’ ”
She didn’t have much experience with public art and had no idea what it would take to get approval to place a sculpture on the historic water tower.
Terese started by going to the Milwaukee water department. She met with a man there who told her she needed permission from a whole bunch of people.
“He looks at the drawing and he says, ‘If you want to do this thing, you will need to get approval from the Historic Preservation Committee, the Milwaukee Arts Commission, the water tower landmark trust, the entire Common Council, the Milwaukee County engineers, oh, and the mayor,' ” she explains.
"I just stopped in my tracks and I thought 'Wow. That would look good with a dragon on it,'" Terese Agnew says.
But the challenge made her even more determined. As she built the dragon, she slayed the bureaucratic obstacles one by one. She says one of the most memorable reactions was from the Historic Preservation Commission.
“Oh, my God, they almost threw me out of there,” Terese remembers. “This guy stands up who is an actual neighbor near the tower. And he says, ‘It would be like putting a mustache on the Mona Lisa.’”
The story started getting news coverage, and Terese gained support from members of the public and some city officials.
“And pretty soon the alderman in the key district for the water tower started receiving letters and postcards from people who were like ‘pro-dragon!’ ” she explains.
Finally, she got the approvals needed to place the dragon on the water tower for five days. Volunteer contractors lifted the 30-foot fiberglass and chicken wire dragon onto the tower.
Terese's reaction: disappointment.
“I thought it was way too small, I was a failure of as an artist, blah blah blah,” she says.
But looking back on it more than 30 years later, she sees it differently.
“What happened as time went on is that people remembered it, and they embellished it in their minds,” Terese said. “And so I guess as an artist I would say that putting an image or an idea in someone’s memory can be infinitely more significant than the art object itself.”
Cookie Anderson, one of the Bubbler Talk questioners who asked about the sculpture decades later, reinforces Terese's thoughts.
“I think she’s right about putting something in our mind that we remember. In fact, maybe that kind of art is more significant because we know it’s short and isn’t going to be there forever,” Cookie says.
What became of the dragon?
What happened to the dragon itself after its short stint guarding the water tower? Terese donated it to the local Boy’s and Girl’s Club, but she says it couldn’t have lasted more than 30 years.
“Heck no,” Terese said. “I mean the poor thing was made of chicken wire and fiberglass. It was only meant to last five days.”
But that dragon is tough.
“The dragon is really larger than life. It’s located in our woods,” says Molly Modrzynski, who runs things at Camp Whitcomb/Mason in Hartland. As of 2019, Agnew’s dragon was tucked into a pine tree forest the camp uses for nature hikes and scavenger hunts.
When Terese saw proof that her dragon lives on she was surprised.
“Oh my God. I can’t believe it!” she says. “It’s moldered well! It’s not pretty, it’s ugly … but in a cool way.”
Terese says she might pay a visit to the dragon next time she’s in the area and try to spruce up the now elderly creature.
The dragon was only on the North Point Water Tower for five days. But it has spent decades adding magic to the forest of a children’s camp.
“That’s kind of a nice ending,” Terese says.
Editor's note: This story was originally published March 1, 2019.
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