PARIS has its world famous Eiffel Tower. Pisa, of course has its leaning tower and London has its ancient tower. What about New York? We have towers, too, but here, they hold water.
Although the skyline of New York city has changed dramatically over the years, one element has remained constant; the city’s romantic wooden water towers, which are every bit as iconic as the Empire State building or the Chrysler Building. There are more than 10,000 water towers around the city, which feature prominently in the works of famous New York artists Like Edward Hopper and the Ash Can School.
In the 1880s, steel was transforming the New York skyline, allowing buildings to reach above five stories, but also creating a design problem. As the buildings soared upwards, water pressure could only reach the fifth floor. Taller buildings needed water for the upper floors and that’s why the water towers were built. Water towers use gravity to help create pressure in pipes on the upper floors. These wooden towers are still the water source for many of the city’s buildings, and they also contain enough water to feed the sprinklers if there’s a fire.
With demand spiking for water towers in late nineteenth century New York, Brooklyn’s large barrel making industry was perfectly positioned to build the city’s water towers. One of the firms that achieved market dominance was the Rosenwach Water Tower Company, which for decades was located in the Northside.
Rosenwach—the oldest water tank company in the United States—began on the Lower East Side in 1866, founded by barrel maker William Dalton. In 1894, Dalton hired Polish immigrant Harris Rosenwach who had made wooden washtubs for sale in Warsaw markets. When Dalton died two years later, his widow Mary sold Rosenwach his “lumber, tools and goodwill” for $55. The company moved to North Ninth Street and Wythe Avenue in Williamsburg in 1924 and prospered there for decades. Although there are two other firms that build water towers, Rosenwach is the only one that builds them from scratch.
Water towers are still constructed largely in the same way today that they were in 1896. They are built with cedar wood staves, just like a pickle barrel. The tanks are built in pieces and fitted together when they are ready for assembly. The pieces that make up the sides of the tanks are grooved on the bottom so that the floorboards fit right in. Nails are not needed. The tanks are bound tight by heavy steel cables placed around like hoops. At first the tank leaks a little, but the water makes the cedar swell and then there is no leakage.
Wood is still the material of choice over steel or concrete. Wood is more durable than metal (which rusts) or concrete, which is more expensive. A wooden tank, if it is maintained properly, will easily last 30 years. In a steel tank there is a rust taste to the water, and in a wooden tank with flowing water no insulation is needed. After a few decades, the tanks wear out and must be replaced. In older tanks the cedar or redwood that was used is still extremely valuable and woodworkers pay top dollar for the discarded lumber of older tanks. Many furniture designers covet the reclaimed wood from the tanks for their high-end pieces.
Sadly, Rosenwach left Williamsburg because of an act of stupidity. Young men celebrating Independence Day in 2009 shot Roman candles into the Rosenwach yard, igniting a fire and severely damaging the operation. The company probably realized that the fire was a blessing in disguise since it was then able to sell the site to real estate developers for huge money. Now, a hotel stands in its place and the company makes its tanks in New Jersey, but water towers still are a unique element of the New York skyline.