Photo by Frank Andolino
Water towers are not exactly an uncommon sight, and I suspect most people think very little of and/or about them. Pretty much every town has one (or several), often with the town’s name proudly displayed. Water towers dotting the skyline are as ubiquitous a signifier of New York as the Chrysler or the Empire State Buildings. When you see a photo featuring, among other things, large wooden barrels atop steel girders, you know you’re looking at picture taken in a New York borough. New York’s water towers have provided endless inspiration for artists and designers. Click on images to enlarge.
Print by NestaHome
Photo by Gary Heller
Water color by Kristen Caston
Print of acrylic painting by Lauren Castillo
In 1998, artist Rachel Whiteread made a translucent resin cast of a water tower and installed it on a Soho rooftop. The ethereal lightness was a fascinating twist. It looked almost icey. The artist described it as “a jewel in the Manhattan skyline.” Check out this great video documenting the process.
Excuse the poor picture quality. I’m not sure who took them originally, but the resolution is all wrong. Sorry, Public Art Fund!
Oliver and I recently spent an afternoon slurping a pitcher of deliciously summery cocktails on the shared roof deck of my parents’ building. We spent most of the time gazing at the treetops of Riverside Park and the Hudson River beyond and chatting:
Not bad, right?
But at one point, I looked behind us and was struck with how close the water towers of adjacent buildings were. There’s a little cluster of them! I had to take some photos.
A conversation ensued about what, exactly, water towers DO, if they’re still functioning, who services them, how simple they area….yadda yadda yadda….a blog post was forming. So, here we are, folks. I’ve done a little investigating and found some interesting water tower factoids and photos to share with you.
Water towers are pretty simple: they are large, elevated tanks constructed to hold a water supply at a height sufficient to pressurize a water distribution system. They became necessary in the 1800s, when indoor plumbing replaced well-drawn water during a post-Civil War housing boom that led to an increased number of taller buildings that needed a little help to keep up the pressure. Any building higher than six stories needed one in order to moderate the water pressure at lower elevations, ensuring that pipes wouldn’t burst. Without sufficient pressure, water might not reach the upper floors of a building or spray from a tap with enough force. In New York, they are predominantly made of wood, as opposed to steel, because:
1. They are cheaper to manufacture ($30,000 versus $120,000)
2. They can be built on-site and installed in a day
3. Wood is non-corrosive
4. Wood is a better insulator than metal
Interestingly, no sealant is used to hold water in. The wooden walls of the towers are held together with cables and water leaks through the gaps when they’re first filled. However, as the water saturates the wood, it swells and the gaps close, becoming impermeable – much the same as with boats or wine barrels.
Photo via Portland Oregon Daily Photo
There are currently an estimated 10,000 towers in New York today, with about 100 built or replaced each year. In most cases, they are more of a fashion statement – some neighborhoods (like Tribeca) require all new buildings to don water towers, whether they function or not. I’m fascinated by the water towers that have been transformed for other uses.
A water tower converted into a residence in the Netherlands, adapted by Zecc Architecture:
Is that a roof-top bathroom? You all know how much I love outdoor bathrooming!
Photos via Tree Hugger
Madako Group, an architecture firm in Germany, converted this historic water tower, now called Umbau Wasserturm, into a live/work apartments in 2002. Three airy two-story apartments with open floor plans are drenched with sunlight, high ceilings and sustainable heating and cooling systems.
Denmark’s 10-story youth center in a converted water tower, by architects Dorte Mandrup Arkitekter ApS:
House in the Clouds, 1923, Thorpeness, Suffolk, UK, has been fully converted into a house with five bedrooms and three bathrooms.
And finally, it’s not a residence, but these adapted water towers are so striking! Kuwait Towers consists of three towers, the main one serving as both a restaurant and water tower, complete with a rotating Viewing Sphere.