Above New York’s glamour and ingenuity, sit wooden water tanks - a historic reminder of water preservation. Our water tanks signify an era of water rationing. They were constructed for common emergencies of drought caused by transportation hardships, overuse, rain inconsistencies or pollution.
The earliest water tanks in New York City were constructed in the late 1800’s. As the 19th century concluded, New York City made it mandatory for all buildings six stories and higher to be equipped with a water tower on its rooftop.
The first water tower constructions used lumber in their constructions and the tradition has continued decades later because of its noteworthy durability. While a number of tanks are made with steel, the longevity of wood is undeniable and therefore more widely used. A cedar tank will last 35 years, and there is still a 146-year-old wooden tank operating on W. 86th Street.
One of the pioneers in water tank construction is The Rosenwach Group. Rosenwach has built more than 50% of the tanks in New York City. The business began in the Lower East Side when Polish immigrant, Harris Rosenwach, was commissioned by a wooden barrel maker to create the broad steeple shaped tank that has become commonplace in our skyline.
The first Rosenwach family member arrived in Manhattan in 1894 from outside Warsaw, where he made bathtubs and containers for storage and cooking. “Wood was the major material for fluid vessels in those days,” Wallace Rosenwach says. Today, wood and metal repairs for water tanks are performed on a machine invented by the Rosenwach family at a shop in Long Island City.
Water tanks, similar to wine barrels, have zero nails and are constructed by girdling a cylinder of wooden grooved staves that fit snugly together, enclosed by galvanized iron hoops and a conical roof. Water that comes through the city’s 19 aqueducts are accessible up to six floors, and due to pumping systems that sometimes store water in the tanks, top floors gain water access. Tanks typically hold ten thousand gallons of water.
Projection science by the city suggests 1 million new residents will join New York City in the next 10 years. As the Big Apple already attracts more than 40 million domestic and international visitors each year, it is apparent water consumption and worldly water usage must be in our consciousness.
The Water Tank Project will use these historic markers as canvases for art that promotes water conservation and raises awareness for water as a critical resource in jeopardy. Using water tanks that have stood over New York City for so many decades is symbolic of how the global water crisis is not a temporary issue, but one that has persisted for years. Water tanks have left a thumbprint on New York’s history, and it’s time to pave our future by raising awareness through art and inspiring action.