Wooden water tanks in NYC – Victorian era tech that lives on [Pensieve]

NYC Wooden Water Tower
NYC Wooden Water Tower via Gothamist

I don’t know when it happened. Maybe it was from reading too much Boing Boing or spotting this ridiculously gorgeous computer mod or this goggle face mask combo. Maybe it was reading Neal Stephenson’s The Diamond Age. Whatever the cause, all of a sudden I was kind of into steampunk and things neo-Victorian.

Steampunk, was originally, a form of speculative fiction/sci-fi that appeared in the late eighties and early nineties. It offered an alternate history of the world 1) where steam power was preeminent and wild inventions were made that used it or 2) where the information age and the Victorian age coincided. Think Will Smith’s Wild Wild West or Katsuhiro Otomo’s Steam boy or the League of Extraordinary Gentlemen. Nowadays it’s also art, jewelry, clothes and music that fetishize Victoriana. Lost of brass. Lots of inner workings exposed. Overall very pretty.

Why the movement is particularly interesting to me is because I can see components of the original sci-fi concept playing out in the developing world today. Think of a Maasai herder in Kenya with his cellphone. The information age is currently coinciding with millennia old ways of living in very fascinating ways.

Anyway after a while of checking out people who make modern things look Victorian, I start to get interested in Victorian era (1837–1901) technology that persists today in close to its original form.

A very interesting example of this are the 10,000 or so wooden water storage towers that dot roofs in NYC. The two remaining NYC companies that specialize in wood water tanks (Rosenwach Group and Issek Brothers) were founded in the 1800’s and still use many of the same methods to create their wood products.

Duration: 2 min 50 sec

They’re a signature part of the city skyline, and even in the 21st century, wood water tanks still have a unique and necessary job here, providing water to millions of homes.

From the NY Daily News:

Up on the roof, 12 stories above W. 86th St., six craftsmen plied a trade from the post-Civil War era, hammering upright cedar planks into place and tightening the lugs on nine galvanized steel hoops that encircled them.

The workers were making a wooden water tank – a relic of old New York that’s a must for even the most modern skyscrapers in a city with naturally low water pressure.
Because water pressure is low, city buildings more than six stories tall use electric pumps to send water to rooftop tanks. Gravity delivers it to sinks, tubs and toilets as needed.

Why still wood after all these years?

Some buildings have steel tanks. But many landlords prefer unpainted wood – which insulates the water efficiently and imparts no taste to it, and lasts a long time.

A cedar tank lasts 35 years. In the past, when redwood was available at reasonable prices, tanks lasted even longer.
A 10,000-gallon wood tower costs $30,000. A steel tank that size costs up to $120,000 because of the labor – parts are hauled to the roof and welded, which could take two months, Rosenwach said. An old wooden tank can be dismantled and a replacement installed in a day.

Tanks aren’t made of plastic because it doesn’t insulate well against heat and cold; the use of fiberglass is prohibited by the city fire code.

This one is going into the pensieve as a potential water business in Guatemala. Cedar is really common there and something like this could be coupled with an agroforestry carbon credit proect.

The 2 remaining NYC companies:
Rosenwach Tank
Isseks Brothers

Related Stories:
142-year-old Rosenwach Tank makes icons of New York skyline [NY Daily News]
Last Wooden Water Tower Builders Vie for Supremacy [Gothamist]
The Art of Water: SoHo’s Water Towers [SoHo Journal, 2006]
Wallace Rosenwach, Builder Of Water Tanks, Dies at 77 [NYTimes, 1999]
Talk of the Town: Many Tanks [New Yorker, 1978]
Dirty Jobs 79 (Season 4, Episode 8): Dirty Jobs of the Big Apple
Dirty jobs in New York City: Building and installing rooftop water tower, cleaning elevator shaft in brownstone

Update: One more story
Charlie Zimmerman, Water Tower Builder from Public Radio series New York Works

FYI: If you are not wild Harry Potter fan and do not know what a pensieve (referred to in the title) is. According to Wikipedia:

A Pensieve is a stone receptacle used to store and review memories. Covered in mystic runes, it contains memories that take physical form as a type of matter that is described as neither liquid nor gas. A witch or wizard can extract their own or another person’s memories, store them in the Pensieve, and review them later. It also relieves the mind when it becomes cluttered with information. Anyone can examine the memories in the Pensieve, which also allows viewers to fully immerse themselves in the memories stored within, much like a magical form of real world virtual reality.

Blogs make excellent pensieves. 😉