The tower was designed by William R. Coats and constructed as part of an elaborate city waterworks project that began in 1899. Located on the highest point in Ypsilanti, the tower was completed in 1890. It had cost $21,435.63 to build it. Made of Joliet limestone, the tower is 147 feet tall, has an 85 foot base and holds 250,000 gallons. Hoping to protect themselves from injury, the builders made at least four crosses in the stonework, one over the west door, an elaborate but difficult to find Greek Cross on the east side and two inside the water tower.
An ordinance passed on April 14, 1898 established a yearly rate schedule for residence with running water. Rates were based on the number of faucets in use, the type of business that customers operated and the livestock they owned. A residence with one tap was charged $5.00 and a private bathtub cost an additional $2.00. Saloon keepers paid $7.00 for one faucet, $3.00 for each additional faucet and $1.00 for each billiard table. Each cow a person owned cost $1.00. People who failed to pay their bill were subject to a $50.00 fine and ninety days in the county jail.
Until 1956, the structure was the only water tower in the Ypsilanti water system. The Ypsilanti Community Utilities Authority began operating and maintaining the structure in 1974. That same year the tower was designated by the American Water Works Association as an American Water Landmark. It was also designated a Historic Civil Engineering Landmark by the Michigan Section of the American Society of Civil Engineers. In 1976 it was restored.
A bust of Demetrius Ypsilanti stands between a Greek and a US flag at the base of the water tower. The city of Ypsilanti is named after this hero of Greek independence.
The tower's decidedly phallic shape has long been a source of humor for comedians in the Ann Arbor-Ypsilanti area, right down to the plaque indicating the year it was "erected." Cabinet magazine ranked the tower as the World's Most Phallic Building. For Christmas, the top of tower is decorated with a single shining star.