New York is a city of rooftop wooden water tanks

They seem like relics of another New York. But most buildings in the city higher than five or six stories have one of these wooden water tanks perched on stilt-like contraptions on the roof.


Photographer Andreas Feininger captured their beauty under a dusting of snow in this image, from 1952. I don’t know where this was taken, but there’s a good chance the water towers look exactly the same today.

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13 Responses to “New York is a city of rooftop wooden water tanks”

  1. Penelope Bianchi Says:

    Really?? And do they still use them for water in those buildings??? Fascinating!!!

  2. Tom B Says:

    I did not know they were made out of wood. I always thought steel.
    Can you explain why they have them? Is it for water pressure in the building?

    • Richard Kenyon Says:

      They are usually wooden because wood will not attract lightning, nor will it expand and contract, leading to leaks, like a metal tank. Their primary purpose is to provide pressure to the piping in the building.

  3. ephemeralnewyork Says:

    They are still in use–of course you can see many from the street, but this kind of top-down view really shows how many there are.

  4. Michael Leddy Says:

    Thanks for this great photograph. I started noticing water towers after writing about Allen Ginsberg and Eric Drooker’s Illuminated Poems. Water towers everywhere in Drooker’s art.

  5. David Moelling Says:

    There are several family companies that service these in NYC. Many are the descendants of Italian immigrants who picked up the trade from their fathers.

  6. Bob Says:

    “Installing, maintaining and replacing wooden water tanks in the city is largely handled by three companies: Isseks Brothers, the Rosenwach Group and American Pipe and Tank. Each is an old family business that has operated for at least three generations, and each has a next generation who parents and grandparents are hoping will take over. […]

    “Though they look old-fashioned, wooden tanks are still very much in use, even in the city’s new luxury buildings, like the stratospherically expensive condominiums at 15 Central Park West, said David Hochhauser, who owns Isseks along with his brother and sister. Pressure in the city’s pipes will take water up only about half a dozen stories, so a building taller than just a few floors requires either a pumping system or a system of tanks, which shifts some of the burden to the force of gravity for a sprinkler system or, say, tap water.”

    “Modern tankmen build in materials other than wood, but they don’t rave about it. Steel tanks cost up to four times as much and must be properly maintained to avoid rusting. Wood insulates better than many other materials, keeping water cool in summer and preventing freezing in winter. And wooden tanks are visually interesting. […]

    “The original tankmen were barrel makers who expanded their craft to meet a modern need. Even today, no sealant is used to hold the water in; tank walls are held together with cables but leak through every gap when first filled. As the wood swells, the gaps close and become impermeable.”

    • JIM PETERSON Says:

      Found this great Times video here — claims there are 10 to 20,000 of these tanks in daily use — seems like the city should have a closer estimate of how many? They are supposed to be drained, cleaned & flushed clean once a year (minimum) but 60% of the tanks are non-compliant. Some are more than 50 years old with failed roofs — pigeons & mice (and even the occasional homeless person!) living inside so these test positive for E coli contamination. It would seem tenants would take more interest in their water supply, demand the tanks be compliant, access be locked, etc.


    AND they have to be replaced every 20 years or so. The old boards are cut in half and taken down to street level in the elevator (if there is one). The new boards come up over the outside of the building with a crane. Crews can demo an old tank *and* build a new one in one day! By the time the tenants get home from work, the new tank is already filling up. The crew returns on day two to build the roof and DONE. There are many companies in town who custom pre-cut all the boards at just the right edge angle for a variety of tank diameters and heights. Steel bolt-tension loops go around the outside of all the boards to retain them in place. Water swells the wood a bit until there are no leaks. But it IS on the roof so a minor leak is nothing to fret about too much.


    AND these systems are known for having super-clean (debris free) water as the return line extends a foot or so up above the floor of the tank — leaving a place for solids to settle out and accumulate and NOT be drawn down into the returning water.

  9. Bob Says:

    Feininger lived for many years at 365 West 20th Street in Chelsea. He probably took the photograph from his window, like many others.

  10. A final elevated train shines on Ninth Avenue | Ephemeral New York Says:

    […] Andreas Feininger captured the solitary steel beauty of the tracks in this photo in 1940, the year the line shut down. […]

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