“Paris has the Eiffel Tower, Pisa has the Leaning Tower and New York has the water tower.”
—Andy Rosenwach, manager of his family business, Rosenwach Tank Co.
Unique fixtures on the New York City skyline, water tanks dot, or sometimes cluster on the rooftops around us; but very few of us give a thought to their use and upkeep. Although they look as if they are antiquated, water tanks remain a vital part of the city’s everyday needs. These tanks are responsible for providing drinking and bathing water to residential buildings across the five boroughs.
There are between 10,000 and 15,000 operating water tanks throughout the city; each is located on a residential building six stories or higher. They have a life expectancy between 30 and 35 years. For the water tank on the roof of 15 West 11th Street its time had come to go.
Although the number of rooftop water towers remains strong, the number of water tank manufacturers has not. There are just two, Rosenwach Tank Company and Isseks Brothers. I know it was Rosenwach that performed this work because of its signature tan-colored, conical tank roof. Rosenwach mills the wood for its tanks in the city at its Long Island City, Queens headquarters; Isseks Brothers’ mill its in Philadelphia. On a mild day in late November 2015 the process made for fascinating viewing!
Water tanks haven’t changed very much in more than 100 years. Some of the construction techniques have improved, resulting in a shorter manufacturing and installation time, but the general principle of a water tank has not changed. Water tanks are nothing more than giant buckets of water, resembling the hot tub covered with a cone-shaped hat, perched on the rooftops of buildings.
About 99 percent of New York City’s residential water tanks are constructed from either western cedar or California redwood. The remaining one percent are made of steel; but when most steel tanks reach the end of their usefulness, they are being replaced by wood tanks. Wood tanks are cheaper and faster to make; and they weigh less. They don’t corrode nor do they give water a metallic taste. Water does not freeze in the winter and stays cool in the summer because of the temperature moderation qualities of wood.
Like other building components and systems, water tanks have to be maintained regularly to keep them operating safely and efficiently. A decision to put off maintenance today will certainly lead to regret tomorrow. For water tanks, prevention is worth a pound of cure. The water tank requires regular attention to avoid emergency intervention, which can be expensive.
Owners of New York City buildings that use tanks to store and pressurize the building’s drinking and bathing water must have the tanks inspected at least once each calendar year. The results of those inspections must be submit to the New York City Department of Health and Mental Hygiene.
A water tank, which stands about 10 to 12 feet high and sometimes just as wide, can be cleaned in a short period of time. There is little inconvenience that will be felt by the building’s residents. The process begins when the tank is drained. This allows workers, usually a two-man crew, to climb inside and scrub the walls and floor with a solution of chlorine. The tank is refilled, and a chlorine solution is added. After the tank has soaked, it is flushed out. The switches, which signal the need for filling the tank, are lubricated, and holes are caulked. The hoops holding the tank’s vertical slats in place are tightened. A tight but not too tight balance must be struck. This fine-tuning leads to a longer tank life. Then the tank is refilled with thousands of gallons of water. One last check is made to look for small leaks. The entire cleaning process, done on a weekday when most building residents are working, takes about six hours. The cost ranges between $500 and $750.
Where will the wooden planks from the old tank go? What will become of them? Perhaps the Hudson Company will buy them, and offer the planks as reclaimed cedar. This company with a showroom in Brooklyn and a mill in Pine Plains, NY, sources its lumber from these architectural landmarks. The repurposed wood is ideal for paneling, furniture, and other creative purposes. The company believes that the straight line ripped, new faced, solid, unfinished wood can bring richness and depth to modern design. As a committed environmentalist, I am delighted to learn that the Hudson Company reclaims pieces of our architectural heritage.
During the bitterly cold winter of 2014–2015 we wrote, “Under the Snow, Holding Water,” about water tanks topped with snow. During our Greenwich Village Walking Tour water tanks in The Village are pointed out and discussed.
“It’s like the Hatfields and the McCoys; and we’re the real McCoy.”
— Andy Rosenwach, about the rivalry between his company and the Isseks Brothers
ALL PHOTOS AND TEXT © THE AUTHOR 2016