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Here’s why the La Grande Tank is the greatest unofficial landmark of San Francisco

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Sutro Tower who?

Up close and personal with the big blue tank in McLaren Park.
Patricia Chang

Forget the Transamerica Pyramid, Sutro Tower, or that tired hunk of International Orange-painted metal between the Pacific and the Bay. La Grande Tank, the big aqua-hued behemoth in John McLaren Park, is the city’s best unofficial landmark.

Sure, that pointed skyscraper in the Financial District, with its glorious glass tip, gets all the attention outside of San Francisco, and unyieldingly proud locals worship at the altar of that three-pronged antenna on La Avanzada Street. The Golden Gate Bridge is great—yet it’s also accessible in an ABC 7-weeknight-news kind of way. But La Grande Tank is San Francisco’s FX after dark.

Although relatively obscure to some San Franciscans, especially newcomers who’ve snapped up downtown condos for prices they’re likely regretting now, La Grande Tank—a Tiffany-blue, 80-foot-tall water vessel servicing 30 residential blocks of Portola, Visitacion Valley and Crocker-Amazon—is quietly loved by San Franciscans as a working-class structure for all.

Originally built in 1956, the tank, anchored 75 feet into bedrock atop the Excelsior District’s McLaren Park, underwent a major seismic and landscape renovation in 2008. It holds approximately 350,000 gallons of water.

As seen from Ocean Avenue in Balboa Park.
Brock Keeling

“Back in the ’80s I was a plumber and someone shot a hole in the tank about 40 feet up,” says Bill Teahan, division manager of the San Francisco Public Utilities Commissions, who gave me a tour of the tank last fall. When the city demolished it for renovation in 2006, he kept the bullet hole, framed it, and put it in his office where it sits today.

While not the largest water tank in San Francisco—that honor goes to a receptacle built under Mount Davidson—it’s the most visible. “The other tanks built above ground are usually painted green to blend in with the trees,” notes Teahan.

But when it came time to rebuilt La Grande Tank more than a decade ago, residents, who had little say in its future construction, wanted “a more beautifully designed structure ... something really special in the southern part of town”—perhaps like the Brooks Catsup Bottle Water Tower in Illinois, or the awe-inspiring Dixie Cup Water Tower in Kentucky?—which meant eliminating La Grande Tank’s cool blue color.

Luckily, this time, the public’s voice fell on deaf ears; the blue hue stayed.

During my tour, the tank seems unassuming up close save for its aquamarine color. A women practiced her tai-chi just outside the heavily gated tower (though attempted on occasion by some rapscallions, it’s all but impossible to scale this tank due to its extensive security system and barbed wire-topped gate), next to the tank and above a series of circa-1930s homes just down the hill. The tank’s ground level has a few benches, as well as views of Noe Valley, Twin Peaks, Downtown, and beyond.

Where this tank gets most its acclaim is from afar. Most notably, tens of thousands of drivers on Interstate 280 see the hilltop tank during daily commutes.

“It’s my daughter’s landmark that indicates we’re almost home,” says Conrad Alano. “She called it the ‘blue garbage can’ and to her it is more iconic San Francisco than the Golden Gate Bridge.”

For others, it’s a more welcoming version of the city’s more pedigree-heavy landmarks. “To me, it’s Little Coit Blue,” says Todd Berman, referencing the famed Coit Tower in North Beach. “I’ve got a view of it from my Bernal Heights studio/home and have great affection for it.”

The oft overlooked water carrier also symbolizes two aspects of the city that don’t get enough attention: John McLaren Park, usually dwarfed by the more prominent Golden Gate Park or Dolores Park, and SF’s dwindling working-class. “It’s the working person’s symbol, explains Shanan Delp. “Nothing fancy about it.”

During these Covidian times, head over to see La Grand Tank in all of its splendor care of the 2.7 mile loop around park, called Philosopher’s Way trail, which will take give you a healthy hike around the park perimeter while taking in that blue baby in all of its girth and glory.

And who knows—maybe one day, diehard denizens will start tattooing the tank on their arms, the way they do that other tower of note, to show their unconditional love of the 415.

The tank comes equipped with a fence and barbed wire, so don’t even think of scaling it.
Patricia Chang