City to Water: Drop Down

Photograph by Anna Walker

New York's prewar apartment towers have good bones, lots of character and the water pressure of a fire hose. Turn the shower up to full blast and you could get bruised before you get clean.

For that you can thank the water tanks that dot the skyline. Water is pumped up from the municipal works into a tank, from which it cascades down to your bathroom according to a shrewd deal the city made with gravity. It's a simple system, and an old one -- wooden water tanks have been on tall buildings since the late 19th century.

You'd think the city's newest, glossiest buildings would have evolved past such a humble technology. But David Hochhauser, president of Isseks Bros. , a water tank manufacturer in New York, would put your dreams of advanced plumbing to rest. He has provided tanks for some of the glitziest towers in New York, including One 57 , 1 World Trade Center and 15 Central Park West . The only big difference between 1880, when his company was founded, and now? "The majority of new buildings have more water tanks than their predecessors," he says. "15 Central Park West has nine tanks. One World Trade Center has 16."

So why don't we see wooden tanks teetering on top of new buildings? The taller a building gets, the more likely its tanks are to be staggered throughout it.

Consider the scary alternative: "If there's a tank on the top of the World Trade Center and someone turns on the faucet on the fourth floor, think of how much pressure would develop. It would take your hand off," he says vividly. Instead, water is pumped into suction tanks in the skyscraper's basement and then up to different levels. At the World Trade Center, cutoffs are every 20 floors. At One Madison , the glass sliver on a tiny lot at the bottom of Madison Square Park, "we put a steel tank at the top of the building that's called a slosh tank, which counteracts the sway of the building," Hochhauser says. When the building moves right, the tank shifts left.

To the shorter brownstones and limestones, New York says no tanks. Water under pressure from the reservoir is simply pushed through the pipes and up into your faucet, as high as the sixth floor -- where sometimes the pressure isn't so hot. Until the advent of elevators and tall towers, there was no need for the water tank system.

And how does all this waterget to Gotham in the first place ? About 90% travels by gravity alone, falling from the heights of the reservoir to the lowlands of NYC.

A few things have changed since olden days. The tanks are now made of either wood or steel. Wood tanks are still favored for their cost, ranging from $30,000 to $100,000, with steel tanks costing from $90,000 to $300,000. Plus, wood weathers better. "We have cold winters and hot summers, and wood tanks expand and contract," Hochhauser notes.

If you want to get fancy about it, the city's water tanks are the final democratic frontier in an increasingly polarized landscape of rich and poor. "I don't think it can be a question of better or worse," Hochhauser says. "Tenants still receive the same water, and by law they get the same amount of fire protection." When buildings have several tanks, he says, "it's not financially directed. It's a sign of the mechanical systems necessary for a building to function."

Close your eyes. All around the city, people in tall buildings are pinned to the shower wall by a torrent of water. They can handle the pressure. They're New Yorkers.

James Tarmy reports on arts and culture for Bloomberg Muse, the arts and leisure section of Bloomberg News.

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