Elevated high above the city skyline, they come in all sorts of shapes, sizes and even colors. With a rotund body and bandy legs made of steel, they are sometimes hidden, or can be right out in the open. But what most people don’t know – is that Water Towers are the forgotten icon of New York City.
The basic design of these tanks, which are essentially giant wooden barrels have been around for over a hundred years and uniquely add to the contour and character of New York.
In New York City, any building higher than 6 stories is required to bestow a rooftop water tower. As an old and established city, it was discovered New York City buildings exceed the height that the infrastructure’s water pressure can handle and the underground plumbing was insufficient to cope with the high and mighty buildings. So the beloved and charming water towers were put in place to alleviate any possibility of bursting pipes.
So how does a Water Tower work? In a similar way to a toilet’s water tank, as the water level decreases from usage, a valve will let more water in and refills the tank. The water is then fed through pipes using gravity to supply water for every day use – as well as a back up for extinguishing a fire.
There are roughly 17,000 water tanks in the 5 boroughs of New York. Wood is the most prominent material for New York’s Water Towers as it is easier to control the temperature, especially during the winter months. It won’t need heating to keep the water from freezing. Wood tanks will also last longer, as steel will corrode and more likely need more upkeep and maintenance. There are some water towers made from wood that have withstood the test of time and have been around for over 90 years. If only they could talk and share us the stories of city!
Water Towers and their history have just as much place in the city as their fellow icons – Statue of Liberty, Empire State Building and the Chrysler Building. They have become one of my favorite scenic visions, providing a magnificent silhouette along the horizon or peering down below from a higher perch.
The next time you are in New York, lookout for the forgotten icon.