God this one is even more bonkers than I realized. It’s wonderful. Chicago industrialist Robert Ilg built his employees a 22-acre countryside ‘pleasure park’ in the suburbs and–since a regular old water tower would be inelegant–had it disguised as a half-sized replica of the Leaning Tower of Pisa. It is impossible to imagine today, sitting in a suburban car-sewer hellscape, but the Leaning Tower of Niles once stood in a literal forest. 

1960s postcard / 2021 photo

The Leaning Tower of Niles was built in 1934 to feed the pools and ponds of Robert Ilg’s Ilgair Park. Ilg made his fortune with the Ilg Electric Ventilating Company, a maker of fans, ventilation units, blowers, heaters, AC units, etc.–their factory still stands in Logan Square. A benevolent capitalist despot, in the late 1920s Ilg built his employees a private park in the then-rural suburb of Niles, a countryside retreat for them to relax and swim on weekends. Ilgair Park also had a wooden toboggan run and a 2,000 person outdoor theater. 

Ilg wanted a water tower that wouldn’t mar his manufactured idyll, so he hired San Francisco architect Albert Farr to design something pretty to hide the tanks. Ilg was familiar with Farr, who had designed Ilg’s winter home in the Sea Cliff neighborhood of San Francisco (which is still there), but Farr mostly did residential work in Spanish and Mission Revival styles in the Bay Area–this was an odd commission for him. A 1941 article on Farr's firm described this commission as "one of the most interesting and unusual problems that I have known to be handed to an architect". In hindsight, my hunch is that this may have been Ilg throwing his favored architect a bone–commissioned in the absolute worst year of the Great Depression, I can't imagine Farr had much else going on at the time.

According to Ilg's son, Farr initially floated a replica of the Tower of London (which would have been even weirder?!) before they settled on the Leaning Tower. 94 ft tall, the Leaning Tower of Niles is made of a mix of precast and cast-in-place reinforced concrete. The water was held in large wooden casks on the 5th and 6th floors, and there was a gift shop on the first floor.

1965, Harold Mayor, University of Wisconsin-Milwaukee Library

With Robert Ilg relocating permanently to California and the pool system expensive to maintain, Ilgair Park closed in 1949. As semi-rural Niles suburbanized in the 1940s and 1950s, Ilgair Park–with the Leaning Tower at its center–became too lucrative a development opportunity to pass up. In 1940 the Ilgs were already trying to flip it, teaming up with Chicago Mayor Ed Kelly to offer the land to Cecil DeMille for a movie studio, in a futile attempt to take back the film industry from Los Angeles. After cycling through a few other development proposals, including a trailer park, the Ilgs donated a small portion of the site to the YMCA in 1958–Robert Ilg apparently had fond memories of visiting the Y as a child in San Francisco. As part of the donation agreement, the YMCA committed to maintaining the Leaning Tower of Niles.

...which, after a few decades, wasn't going great. At one point, the Village of Niles feared that the shabby state of the tower would be an embarrassment when officials from the actual city of Pisa visited. In 1995, the village paid to restore the tower and renovate the plaza around it, but the YMCA continued to skimp on maintenance.

After years of questions about its future, in 2017 the village officially acquired the tower, with the donation agreement preserving the Ilg estate's conditions for maintaining the building. Niles envisions the Leaning Tower as a focal point for a redevelopment including a new park, concert venue and community center, and created a TIF district to support the redevelopment of the surrounding area and pay for the restoration of the tower. Amongst other things, that restoration discovered that three of the tower's bells are the real deal, cast in Italy in the 17th and 18th centuries. In 2020, the Leaning Tower of Niles was added to the National Register of Historic Places.

Today, Niles and Pisa are sister cities–quite literally only because Robert Ilg wanted to hide the water tanks feeding the swimming pools in his personal corporate park.

Production Files

Further reading:

The Ilgs somehow tricked Life and the Chicago Tribune to report on the family moving out of the tower (or Life was in on the joke–hard to say, but they certainly never lived here).

The Ilg Hot Air Electric Ventilating Company factory is still standing in Chicago at 2850 N. Pulaski. The building is self-storage now (of course). The company itself was bought by Carrier in the 1960s, before the Ilg family bought it back in 1977. In 1991, it was acquired by the American CoolAir Corp–it's still part of Coolair, it looks like the Ilg name still in use (at least a bit, for a division).

Ilg's obit in the Niles Bugle in 1964, Niles Public Library via the Internet Archive