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January 10th, 2006

The Art of Water: SoHo’s Water Towers

by Alexandra Schwimmer

Watch those water towers! They are performing a private dance across the rooftops of SoHo. Where there is life, water is never far away and we choose to store it right above us. Gravity is the key to these structures we depend on daily. For the past one hundred and forty eight years, water towers have been a necessary element of city living. The commercial use of elevators raised the possibilities of building heights to a previously impractical level. 488 Broadway (at Broome Street) installed the first commercially viable elevator in 1857. The first wooden roof tank, invented by Abraham Isseks, was quick to follow.

Isseks was a barrel maker with an ingenious mind: he used gravity to satisfy peoples needs and made the Fire Department happy as well. A Tower of Strength proclaims the sign at their 298 Broome Street location, accurately describing what Isseks Bros. manufactures, erects, supports, maintains, and repairs. Founded in 1890, Isseks Brothers is truly a SoHo establishment; it has had a big part in creating the neighborhood in which it still does business. Four familial generations later, Isseks Brothers Incorporated continues to erect new tanks.

Transportation and containment of water sources throughout the city immediately followed the invention of the elevator. Once building structures could be built higher, it became more difficult for the upstate reservoir to supply water with sufficient pressure on a steady basis. The old system provided only enough pressure to force water up to any structures sixth floor. Once water towers were capable of storing up to twenty thousand gallons, much larger buildings became possible. It made life easier and created a new sense of safety from fire emergencies. The towers became unofficial neighborhood guardians.

There is simplicity to the design of the tanks that has insured their survival for over a century. Simply put, they work. Tanks used for potable (domestic use) water, are activated when the water level falls to below fifty percent of capacity. An electric pump is automatically triggered and the tank refills. Since the tanks can hold from five thousand to twenty thousand gallons of water, the force of gravity guarantees constant pressure. This makes the water tower the cheapest, cleanest, most effective way to get water into a building.

The Isseks Brothers phone message introduces the company as New Yorks oldest and largest manufacturer of aluminum and wood tanks. Two of Isseks larger and more recent water towers have been the installation of four tanks on the TimeWarner tower, and the new tanks that were placed on the south side of Houston Street. Although Isseks does install both wood and steel tanks, nine out of ten new buildings order the old-fashioned wood tanks. There is something aesthetically pleasing in the wooden structures that cold steel tanks cannot duplicate. The downtown company works all over the New York area and projects like the entirely modern, high-rise buildings along Houston Street promise their continuing success.

Functionally water towers have lasted over a century and the majority of downtown builders have chosen to retain the classic wood look, as the builders have on Houston Street. The construction of the tanks is 99 percent cedar and 1 percent redwood. In the past, cypress was used but it has become almost impossible to obtain cypress or redwood that is of sufficient quality for these tanks. When finally installed, the wood remains yellowish in color for about a year, and then bleaches out to nearly white. After four years they take on the grayish tint that will become a dark brown in time. It is the comforting hue of longevity.

The lower building heights of SoHo have enabled the tanks to become a familiar part of our skyline. They have been incorporated into the artistic life of the neighborhood and are even loudly announced by tour bus megaphones as they ride though SoHo. Necks crane upwards to approvingly view these magical towers.

SoHos towers are best viewed from the deck of an actual rooftop or through a loft window looking out across a street at rooftops of other SoHo buildings. A window viewpoint allows the simple elegant lines of the tower to be appreciated. At the base of the tank equally distanced steel supports fan outwards in a linear pattern that allows the ladder to the top of the tower as a blended presence. The ladder is a basic stepladder whose sides arrive at the top in a graceful curve back downwards. Hoops band around the tower and continue the circular packaging of the tank. At the top of the barrel-like drum is a roof to the tank which is constructed of either pine or plywood. Pine is preferable because it wont fall apart when heat is introduced to the tank in winter to keep the water from freezing. This design has no peer; the silent watch over our neighborhood is a constant presence.

Although water towers hold an honored position in our neighborhood, this is not the case outside of SoHo. Many postwar structures built uptown cover their water towers by placing them inside of the building or placing a shelter around them so that they are only open at the top. Uptown, water towers are generally denied. It is as if they are old-fashioned inventions that are too outdated for glass and steel high rises. In actuality the buildings uptown have to mimic the height of SoHo buildings for their towers to function. The perfect fit of downtown and water towers is created uptown as skyscrapers place tanks at a lower level as well as on the highest point of the building.

The relationship of water towers to the SoHo landscape is even celebrated artistically, as the artists of SoHo found inspiration in these barrel-like structures.?Ǭ A SoHo water tower was the subject of the 1984 photography project by artist Thea Weltner. Weltner enlisted Isseks Brothers help in realizing a photograph she had in mind. Isseks obliged and a tower at 525 Broome Street was wrapped in gold lame for the artist. This was not the first photograph to be taken of downtown water towersnor was it most sought afterbut it was the start of a movement that made many of us aware that the tanks are more than simply solely functional members of our community. The water tower has become a muse.

This creative idea, from one man, dating back to 1890, is still the ingenious method that is used to bring us our water today. The tanks have kept generations of city workers and inhabitants hydrated, clean, and safe. A large part of our SoHo heritage, a downtown area of commercial, industrial turned residential mixed with retail, is dancing across the rooftops of our skyline. Once in a while look up and applaud the dance of the tanks.

Its for you.

Filed Under: Articles | Arts & Leisure | New York

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