Lost In History Vol. 5

by |
10/11/2006 12:00 AM |

The water towers stand perched above the city like so many ancient, all-seeing sentinels. Either conspicuously set against the sky, sticking out against another ‘scraper, or ensconced in a hidden box built onto the roof, the water towers of NYC are an omnipresent aspect of this city’s architecture, but seem to stand somewhat empty, drained of their purpose. What are they for? Do they even work? More a realm of the forgotten New York, objects used only as noirish background for fedora’d detectives on rooftop chases, these rotundas of hydration are actually tools required by law in order to ensure that the city doesn’t burn down, or so that New Yorkers up high can get something to drink. And, as in so many other cases, it all comes back to the geography.

Thanks to the topography of the island of Manhattan – the bedrock of Schist, granite and dirt – water can’t be naturally pumped any higher than 6 stories, about 80 feet, or the force of gravity gets in the way. Once Elisha Otis invented the safety brake for the passenger elevator in 1852, buildings suddenly broke free of their 8-10 story apogee; hand in hand with construction came the necessity to deliver water farther than gravity would allow. The need for water started with drinking, washing and cooking, but developed into the all-important rooftop reservoir system in case of fire, as mandated by newly established fire codes at the turn of the century. Enter the Rosenwach family.

Harris Rosenwach, a skilled Polish laborer with a burgeoning trade in wooden bathtubs, storage and kitchen tubs, emigrated to the city in 1894 and started apprenticing at a Pike Street (later renamed Grand Street) cooper. In 1896 the head cooper passed away and Rosenwach purchased the company for $55. Back then, the basic material to carry any type of liquid was wood: it was sturdy, cheap and a natural insulator – think of the pickle barrels of the Lower East Side. “Three inches of wood has the same insulation value as 30 inches of concrete,” Wallace Rosenwach (grandson of Harris) cheerfully tells the viewer on one of the many promotional videos on his company’s homepage.

Harris passed the business along to Julius, Julius to Wallace, and Wallace to Andrew. Wallace invented the one-button machine currently in use at their mill on Wythe Avenue in Brooklyn. This apparatus cuts both ends of each stave simultaneously, grooves the edges and drills a tiny hole halfway along, which is used to hold the boards together before the galvanized iron hoops are slipped over the whole affair and compressed together. Not a single nail is used, and the boards are left unpainted, so that the wood breathes and ages better. The conical roofs are built from plywood, and each Rosenwach tank is topped by a four-sided 3-D “R.” An old tank can be disassembled and a new one put it its place in 24 hours.  A typical tank is twelve feet high, thirteen feet in diameter and holds 10,000 gallons. Each tank is expected to last from 30 to 60 years, and most of the 10,000+ tanks in the city were installed in the 20s through the 40s — meaning that within the last twenty years, the Rosenwach crew have had more repair and reinstallation work than new production. This proves their successful business model: when the product outlasts the competition, only the original production company can replace it.
In 1965 the city revised the fire code, and no longer required buildings to use water tanks in order to pressure water past the 6th floor, allowing basic plumbing to do the job. Regardless, all buildings with a water tank (or a few of them) in place have kept them along and in doing so, have maintained an indelible image of our simultaneously modern and antiquated New York skyline.

Matt Levy is a licensed NYC tour guide and Junior Partner of The Levys’ Unique New York!, a business he runs with his Dad  (www.vintagenytours.com);
they are proud to be the only family of licensed NYC tour guides. While
not leading tours, Matt likes long walks on the beach, kittens,
reading, writing, cooking, cooking with a certain pretty girl, dancing,
dancing with a certain pretty girl, talking, talking with a certain
pretty girl, and building tall bikes.