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The Familial History of the Familiar
A glance across New York’s rooftops yields a surprise
“The waters are nature’s storehouse, in which she locks up her wonders.” — Izaak Walton, 1653
One of our entries this week (“Family Values”) heavily focused on one of the iconic structures of the New York City skyline: the Brooklyn Bridge.
Once upon a time, I used to travel to New York regularly. (We all know what era that preceded; no need to name it as we continue into the second year of it.)
During those trips, I invariably found myself looking across the rooftops as I looked out of windows from the upper floors of skyscrapers or attended rooftop parties. And there was always one curiosity that stood out to me.
The old water towers.
Seemingly at odds with the glass and steel structures sprouting up beside them like a beanstalk over which Jack would have marveled, these stout and sturdy cylinders stood guard over the landscape, their witches’ hats firmly affixed atop their bodies.
So I got curious (well, remained curious — as Dorothy Parker wrote, “Curiosity is the cure for boredom. There is no cure for curiosity.”) and started looking into the history of water towers in New York City.
A Towering History
Sanitation in New York was recognized as an issue as industry became more prominent in the city; by 1863, the Citizens Association of New York was established to address public health issues.
One of these issues was access to clean water. So by 1870, the Department of Public Works was founded and by the 1880s, indoor plumbing began to appear. But there was a problem: local water pressure was weak, so water couldn’t reach the upper floors of some buildings.
Enter the water tower.
As buildings grew taller, the city required those six or more stories high to be equipped with a rooftop tank with a pump.
And so it has been for over 150 years, water towers built out of wood, dotting the city’s skyline. Why wood, you ask? For a couple of reasons. First, it’s less expensive than steel. And more importantly, wood allows the water to maintain a more constant temperature; it doesn’t freeze in the winter or get too hot in the summer.
But, since the towers are made of wood, they only last about 30 years. Someone needs to rebuild them.
This is where it gets interesting.
As I was researching this topic, I discovered that there are only three companies that make water towers for New York City buildings. And they’re all family-run businesses.
They are: the Rosenwach Tank Company, Isseks Brothers, and American Pipe and Tank. The Rosenwach Tank Company originated in the Lower East Side in 1866, founded by barrel maker William Dalton. Dalton later hired Harris Rosenwach, who bought the company after Dalton died and expanded the company to include historic building preservation, outdoor site furnishings, and new water technologies.
In 1890, Isseks Brothers opened; the company is now run by the Hochhauser family. And American Pipe has been servicing the New York real estate industry for more than 100 years, with its practice of “sons apprenticing with their fathers.”
One Last Thing
Because our interests here extend to literature as well as history, there is one final observation worth considering.
When I see multitudes of water towers on the roofs of New York buildings, they appear to be some sort of sentinels, forever keeping watch over the city. Perhaps on guard from their evil doppelgangers from Mars:
That’s right. They’re eerily reminiscent of Henrique Alvim Corrêa’s 1898 illustrations for H.G. Wells’ The War of the Worlds.
And if you want to go down the Timeless & Timely rabbit hole, here’s a related entry to consider:
Thanks, and I’ll see you on the internet.