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New York’s other skyline – old-style water towers

Squint a little and the sleek modern cityscape reveals old-fashioned water towers in use on most buildings over six stories.

By Jina Moore / January 6, 2009

Unseen from the below: A Rosenwach tank atop an Upper East Side apartment building uses nature's technology – gravity – to supply showers, laundry, and kitchen needs.

Lawrence Lerner


New York

New York
On the ground, New York City seems to be an unparalleled exercise in modern convenience. The city is home to the only subway in America that runs 24 hours a day. New Yorkers can get most anything – from household groceries ordered on the Internet to Sichuan food – delivered almost anywhere almost any day of the year. New Yorkers are limited in what can be bought, sold, stored, or serviced only by their own imaginations.

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However slick the city’s neon-lit streets, what keeps the city pumping – literally – towers high above the bustling crowds.

On top of every building more than six stories high, from the Bronx to Brooklyn, there’s a water tank, a rotund wooden barrel that holds the thousands of gallons of water apartment dwellers need for cooking, showering, and washing clothes.

Most of them, after decades outdoors, have turned a washed-out gray-brown, a color that makes visitors and locals alike think the towers are neglected relics.

“Once you tell somebody what you do for a living, they say, ‘Holy mackerel, I look out of the office at work, and they’re all over the place!’ ” says Kenny Lewis, shop foreman of the Rosenwach Tank Company’s lumber yard. “Yes, they are. And thank God, because that’s what we do.”

In fact, hardly a day goes by when owner Andrew Rosenwach doesn’t get a call, from a new apartment complex in Queens to Cartier Jewelers’ New York City flagship, to repair or restore a tank his father or grandfather installed years before.

Rosenwach is one of only two companies in town that make the wooden water towers; a discerning survey of the skyline can reveal whose towers are whose: A little “R” rests against each side of the post that pokes out from the top of a Rosenwach tank, like a wooden flag.

“I was getting out of my car, and two men stopped me and ... [said], ‘You can’t be a New Yorker without knowing about Rosenwach,’ ” says Mr. Rosenwach. “Another guy gave me a bear hug and said, ‘You’re the the Gunga Din of New York.’ ”

Rosenwach lacks the “squidgy nose” of the water-carrying hero of the Rudyard Kipling poem, but the comparison is one of Rosenwach’s favorites. The fourth in the family to run the 112-year-old company, he was a lover of literature first, and a tank man only with time. He studied liberal arts at Johns Hopkins, buddying up with late literary critic Hugh Kenner, and worked at his father’s company in the summers, mostly sweeping up debris and hoisting planks up to the men building the tanks.

“I never really did go up on top. I basically would’ve fallen or tripped on my shoelaces or something,” he says. “You really have to have strong legs, know how to balance yourself, and know how to move.... It’s like being a performer ... 50 feet off the roof.”