I know some New Yorkers consider them an eyesore, and most pass them on by giving them no notice whatsoever; I personally love the stark simplicity of their design which by-and-large is left unadorned and slowly weathers over the years until they need to be replaced every second or third decade into their use. Water towers are, of course, not unique to New York City; but no city has the sheer number that NYC has and it would be hard to imagine the city’s skyline without their distinctive profile emerging out of the dawning sun or slowly melting into the shadow of dusk.
First, their function: throughout most of NYC’s topography, the natural water pressure from the various aqueducts built over the past two centuries to bring New Yorkers their drinking water will rise about 60 feet from ground-level; if you look at a lot of tenements built from mid- to late-nineteenth century, you’ll notice that most buildings were not built higher than five or six stories not only because people were unwilling to schlep up so many flights of stairs but also because they couldn’t get water to residents living on floors higher than 60 feet. Once safe passenger elevators were developed (another often unsung awesome object!) and were increasingly integrated into architectural designs, buildings with floor levels higher than six stories needed a water distribution system to provide occupants on upper levels with both drinking water and for possibly fire protection; so water pumps in building basements deliver water to the rooftop and are stored in the wooden cylindrical water towers; these tanks have a ballcock inside (operating just like your toilet) that regulates the distribution of water by simply allowing gravity to bring the water down whenever you open a faucet or flush your toilet. Most are constructed out of untreated wood because wood is a natural insulator and more or less preserves the quality of the water (although in my research I did stumble upon a documentary that is critical of how many landlords are not properly complying with regulations mandating the tanks are cleaned every year resulting in water contaminated with E coli!) While newer buildings do have different water delivery technology, the simplicity, efficiency, and relatively economical nature of water towers makes them very appealing.
At least for some – this being New York, there are people who see them as underutilized surface space where you could either advertise or incorporate art into their design. Since 2014, there has been an initiative called “The Water Tank Project” that pairs artists with school children to explore both art and the global issue of water shortages and pollution. If you look around the city now, some of the water towers sport the artwork that results from this collaboration. And the water tower as an object itself has inspired different artworks that you can see in the city as well; part of the Museum of Modern Art’s sculpture garden has a work by the British-based artist Rachel Whiteread of a translucent resin-cast sculpture of a formerly functioning water tower – it picks up the sun in different ways during the day and practically disappears at night. And in Brooklyn, Tom Fruin has two different multi-colored water tower-shaped sculptures made of recycled industrial materials that take on an almost stained-glass quality to them; one is located on the far south-side of the Brooklyn Bridge Park and the other is in DUMBO (acronym for the neighborhood “Down Under the Manhattan Bridge Overpass”) near the Manhattan Bridge.
For me, the unadorned wooden water towers have a quintessentially New York feel to them that evokes both a quiet dignity but also an air of loneliness to them; contemplating them as ubiquitous objects throughout the city, I always associate them with one of the artists I’m obsessed with: Edward Hopper. While I don’t believe he ever painted or even sketched a water tower as a lone subject (unlike, say, his famous paintings of light houses or a railroad tower), there a couple of water towers that do dot the distant or near skyline in his paintings; for example, in the less well known painting below, The Circle Theatre (1936). Like the human subjects in Hopper’s work, water towers exude a mundane beauty that seems to be ordinarily obscured by all the hustle-and-bustle of the big city until Hopper forces you as a viewer to slow down and really appreciate the inherent beauty of these objects and what they contribute to the overall look and feel of New York City as a whole.
As always, I invite anyone reading this blog entry to join me on a walking tour through different NYC neighborhoods – I may just point out a water tower that gives you a beautiful shot of the city!