That Thing on the Roof
By Laurie Lewis
They are so ubiquitous and familiar that New Yorkers don’t even think about them. But visitors admiring the city skyline often are dumbfounded by the big, round, rather ugly, gray structures that they see on rooftops. What are these weather-beaten eyesores?
They are water tanks or water towers (the names are interchangeable). Water tanks are a necessity for any building more than six stories tall, which is about as high as the city’s natural water pressure enables water to go. Very large buildings have more than one tank to meet the needs of the occupants. Many buildings hide their water tanks inside enclosures made of structural materials like brick that blend in with the façade. But rest assured, if the building is taller than six stories, it has at least one water tank.
For more than a century, rooftop water tanks, aided by gravity, pipes, and a pump system, have been supplying water to occupants of New York City buildings. Water at the top of the tank is the freshest and is used first. An outlet about midway down releases the water, and then gravity takes over as water goes from the tank to pipes throughout the building. When the water level in the tank drops sufficiently, an electric pump pushes water from the basement to the rooftop tank. It’s a simple yet elegant closed loop.
Most of the city’s 17,000 or so water towers are made of wood. To avoid chemical contamination, the wood is not treated or painted. Steel tanks may be more attractive, but they are much more expensive and not good insulators; water could freeze in the tower in the winter and get hot in the summer. A wood tank lasts thirty to thirty-five years and can hold 10,000 gallons of water. Big as the tank is, it takes just a day to build and two to three hours to fill.
Only three companies build and install the water towers: Rosenwach Tank Company, Isseks Brothers, and American Pipe and Tank. Each of these companies is a family business, passed down through at least three generations. They’re still doing the job the way their fathers and grandfathers did. The tanks are assembled on the roof—actually, above it, on a sturdy platform—because they are too big to fit in an elevator. As water enters a newly constructed tank, the wood expands, forming an airtight seal. Once the tank is in operation, each building is responsible for regular inspection and cleaning.
Trust New Yorkers to find alternative uses for the city’s infrastructure—“superstructure” would be a more accurate description of the rooftop water towers. Owners of a Greenwich Village two-bedroom condo converted a defunct water tank above it into a cottage complete with tall windows, central air, cable, and 24-foot ceilings. The condo and tower cottage together sold for about $3.6 million.
For a six-week period in 2013, an illegal, invitation-only speakeasy operated in an abandoned water tank in the Chelsea neighborhood of Manhattan. This is not to be confused with the legal, custom-built (that is, not actually a water tower), pricey Water Tower bar atop the Williamsburg Hotel in Brooklyn, which opened late last year.
Then there was the Water Tank Project of 2014. This was a combination art project and environmental awareness campaign of a nonprofit organization called Word Above the Street. Rooftop water towers were temporarily wrapped in art by well-known and emerging artists. The purpose of the project was to call attention to the global water crisis.
So it’s not true that New Yorkers never think about water towers. We don’t think about them until something—like an unusual art project—calls them to our attention.
My Personal Experience with Water Towers
The 2003 blackout, which left the entire Northeast in the dark, occurred a few months after I moved into my seventh-floor apartment. The first afternoon and evening, I was able to cook perishable food on my gas stove, keep the apartment comfortable in the August heat by opening the windows, read by candlelight, and even talk on an old-fashioned phone that plugged only into the utility’s system. I went to bed that night thinking that I could get through the blackout without much distress. But when I awakened the next morning, I could not flush the toilet or fill the coffee pot with fresh water. That's when I learned that water in New York City does not rise more than six stories without an electric push. After walking up six flights of stairs several times carrying bottled water—which was rapidly becoming a scarce commodity—I’ll never forget that oddity about New York!
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