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Sunday, January 18, 2004

Photo by V.W.H. Campbell Jr. ~ Story by Rebekah Scott

Click photo for larger image.

If the buildings at St. Vincent Archabbey and college were a family, Sauerkraut Tower would be the old uncle who tells tall tales.

He's handsome still, despite his age. He stands tall atop the highest rise on the St. Vincent College campus, 90 feet of well-laid hand-made brick stacked back in 1893.

He stood as generations of students, seminarians and Steelers came and went, and new buildings rose at his foot to house libraries, labs, gyms and classrooms.

Sauerkraut Tower is built broad-shouldered. He's a hollow ellipse, with windows in ranks along his flanks. His was heavy work: Back at the start, Sauerkraut Tower hefted 80,000 gallons of water on his shoulders, housing tanks, pumps and pipes of a gravity-feed water system designed by Brother Wolfgang Traxler.

The monks raised their own food as well as buildings, and they weren't ones to waste anything, including the cool dark inside the water tower.

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Brother Innocent, chief cook, found it a perfect storage space for a year's bumper crop of cabbage and kraut. Through the early years of the 20th century, crocks and barrels of pickled cabbage gave the brick tower a vinegary tang and a poetic new name.

"Sauerkraut Tower. I think through the years they must've served a lot of kraut, and some students thought the entire building was full of the stuff, floor to ceiling," said Don Orlando, a school spokesman.

The college and seminary grew with the century, and the tower couldn't pump enough water to meet the need. By the mid-1930s, a nearby coal mine was draining the spring that fed the tower. Brother Victor, an Austrian engineer, gardener and grotto-builder who joined the order in 1911, was given another duty: checking the water supply three times each day.

"That meant walking up 10 flights of stairs inside the tower," he told the campus newspaper in an undated interview. It didn't take him long to design the clever cork-float and pulley gauge system. More than 80 years after Brother Victor came to St. Vincent, his hand-numbered water gauge still counts from one to 14 on a board mounted inside the tower.

But much has changed in the decades since then. Brother Innocent's last kraut barrel was rolled away. City water lines finally came to St. Vincent in 1942. Sauerkraut Tower retired, his base a storage space for lawn mowers and water pumps. In time, wooden floors and stairs rotted and his roof began to leak. A family of white owls nested in his eaves.

In 1976, the old water tanks were dismantled and taken away and a new roof was installed. Sauerkraut Tower shrank by 16 feet, but his bricks were cleaned and tuck-pointed and his windows weatherized.

Nowadays he's back to being a storeroom, albeit one with an 80-foot ceiling. His stone floor, once crowded with kraut crocks, is stacked now with orange traffic-safety barrels. A plastic Santa Claus stands forlorn on the first stairway landing.

There's no smell but damp.

Few people have seen his insides, but Sauerkraut Tower still serves an important purpose, Orlando said, opening a sheaf of old news clippings.

"It's a landmark, an intriguing part of the college skyline for decades," the local newspaper said in 1972.

"Every American college campus boasts at least one legendary landmark ... and Sauerkraut Tower is an acknowledged architectural hallmark on the Bearcat campus," according to a 1981 engineering study.

Cat's Meow, a maker of miniature landmark buildings for knick-knack collectors, produced a special-edition Sauerkraut Tower model that's for sale in the Basilica gift shop.

Sauerkraut Tower's dimensions have been used in math classes, where students were given its measurements and told to figure out just how much cabbage it can hold.

Its shadowy nooks have provided privacy to generations of sneaky smokers, drinkers, truants and true lovers. It's become a campus after-hours attraction.

And what would an old tower be without an attendant ghost story?

Freshman Kara Zupancic of Bethel Park said her dorm prefect recently took a group of girls on a midnight tour of "Haunted St. Vincent's," which included a stop at Sauerkraut Tower.

"[The prefect] said there was a monk who, like, spent his entire career there, working on a windmill kind of thing," Zupancic said. "One day, once he got it going, his robe caught on one of the windmill blade things, and it, like, hung him. And he's still there! It's really creepy, and fun!"

Rebekah Scott can be reached at or 724-836-2655. Reach V.W.H. Campbell Jr. at

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