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History in the Shadows

Former Baker & Williams Warehouse, with water tank

Former Baker & Williams Warehouse, with water tank

Who doesn’t love a New York City water tank? This iconic rooftop emblem is famous around the world, a standard bearer for our skyline. Recently — and from the High Line, my favorite observation deck — I’ve discovered a new way to appreciate these “silent sentries,” as the filmmaker Jane Martin calls them: in reflection.

Yesterday I took a stroll during the last half hour the park was open, and heading for the 20th Street stairs noticed this fine shadow on the old Baker & Williams warehouse. Spindly but clear, it’s a water tower that got caught in the setting sun, like a giant arachnid, and for a few minutes its skeletal outline was broadcast upon this old brick warehouse. This is a complex of buildings I’ve been photographing for years; it’s not particularly beautiful (although the water tower makes it so) but it has an unusual backstory that can be traced to the founding of New Amsterdam in the 17th century.

The first Dutch settlers on this island were entrepreneurs; they came here to do business. Their founding venture was to enable trade — primarily in beaver pelts — for the Dutch West India Company. Reports of the city’s earliest days include mention of warehouses “for storing furs and transferring them to ships.” The book Dutch New York describes the active commercial waterfront of 1664 as “rows of closely built brick, stepped, or spout-gabled townhouses and warehouses.”

Since the Industrial Revolution warehouses have been an essential part of West Chelsea, fueled by two key factors: the explosion of foreign and domestic trade on the Hudson River waterfront and passage of the Warehousing Act of 1846, which allowed private companies to warehouse goods and defer the payment of fees or taxes until products had been reshipped or picked up by the consignee. Defending that law twenty-five years later, the Storekeeper of the Port of New York noted that England’s similar arrangement “made her the mistress of the commerce of the world,” a position New Yorkers have vied for since the days of Henry Hudson.

The three brick buildings on 20th Street just west of the High Line once belonged to the Baker & Williams Company, which operated “bonded,” or duty-free, warehouses around the city as a direct benefit of the 1846 law. It’s also the site that helps explain how the Manhattan Project got its name. In the 1940s this set of buildings was used as a top-secret government facility for storing tons of processed uranium, which was being studied as part of the research effort that led to the production of the atom bomb. This was one of at least ten locations in Manhattan that participated in the atomic energy project; today it houses galleries and related businesses, and sits directly across the street from a house of worship, the Kingdom Hall of Jehovah’s Witnesses, and next door to the headquarters of Friends of the High Line. (For more, read William Broad’s fascinating article in the New York Times, “Why They Called it the Manhattan Project”)

The water tower that’s projected onto the warehouse also hails from a distant lineage and embodies a craft much more ancient than our metropolis. The great CBS newsman Charles Kuralt looked up at these structures and saw “the hoops and staves of the Middle Ages.” Everywhere in New York, it seems, are the shadows of history.

Below is another water tank in reflection, but this time from a thoroughly modern installation: the El Anatsui sculpture “Broken Bridge II,” that’s mounted on a building facade at 22nd Street. The tank it reveals is one of my favorites in the city; look a bit north and to the east and you’ll see it on  the roof of the London Terrace Apartments on 23rd Street. That building also has a great backstory, but I’ll leave it for another day. (Or, you can read about it in my book, available for sale on the official website of Friends of the High Line!)

El Anatsui, "Broken Bridge II" + Water Tower

El Anatsui, “Broken Bridge II” + Water Tower

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Rooftop Artists

“So atop the city that taught the world what modern cities ought to be, there they are, the hoops and staves of the Middle Ages.” — Charles Kuralt

Broken Bridge II + Water Tower

This blog is no danger of becoming LivinTheWaterTower.com, Scout’s honor, but I’ve had such an interesting response to recent pieces about New York’s water towers that I wanted to share what fellow tank enthusiasts have passed along.

I had no idea, until I learned about the Water Tank Project and started paying closer attention, that New York’s water towers have for many years been a source of artistic expression for a wide variety of artists. When the Water Tank Project opens next Spring New Yorkers will have the pleasure of seeing hundreds of tank-inspired works of art on display all over the city, by both established and emerging artists. Until then, here’s a few earlier works to enjoy. I’ll continue to update this list. If you have a work you’d like to tell me about, please email me using the contact form.

My photo captures the reflection of the beautiful brick structures that house the water tanks of the London Terrace apartments in the pressed tin and mirrors of El Anatsui’s installation-in-progress on 21st Street. The work is called Broken Bridge II and is part of the High Line’s excellent public art program. Read more about it here. I walked the High Line today and, to my delight, noticed this natural, impromptu blending of art + water towers. As always, click the image to enlarge it.

“Silent Sentries,” a short film by Jane Martin

“Silent Sentries,” a short documentary by Jane Martin. The person who wrote to me about this film, which originally aired on PBS about 20 years ago, remembered a Greek chorus of New Yorkers who, when asked what the water tanks were, came up with a host of perfectly ridiculous but often marvelous (in that Only-in-New York kind of way…) answers and speculations. I found Jane Martin on the web and and she very kindly mailed me a DVD of the film. Yes, the comments from our fellow citizens are amusing, but what I loved about this film is the narrative that Martin un-spools. Somehow she managed to find and film the renovation of one water tank — it’s on the West Side, somewhere in the 50s, I think, but it’s hard to know for sure — and her film roughly documents the removal of the existing tank and its replacement with a brand new one. Her shots of the men at work are wonderful — often they seem completely unaware of the camera — and best of all you get the vivid (and sometimes vertiginous) sensation of actually being on the roof of a New York building and seeing the city from the point of view of a water tower. You also get a deep understanding of how these things are constructed. I suppose this shouldn’t have surprised me, but I was fascinated to realize that the water tanks have to be built on-site, they can’t simply be lifted up by a crane and installed ready-made. So while the modern city hums below, these beefy, expert guys practice a centuries-old art on the rooftops above. It’s a vivid and surprising film, and while it’s not currently available for streaming you can contact Jane via this email address about purchasing a copy: SilentSentries@janemartinart.com. For more about the film, visit JaneMartinArt.com.  I hope that PBS will re-air the film next year when the Water Tank Project goes up.

“The Water Tower Player” (“Le Joueur de Citernes”) a film made by French filmmaker Emmanuel Gorinstein. Read my blog post about the film here, or go directly to Vimeo to watch it. Be ready for magic.

Tom Fruin’s Watertower, Dumbo, Brooklyn. Installed June 2012. This sculpture sits on the rooftop of 20 Jay Street and is visible from the Dumbo section of Brooklyn as well as the Brooklyn and Manhattan Bridges, the FDR Drive, and points in Lower Manhattan. The piece is made from reclaimed materials: steel plus roughly 1,000 scraps of salvaged plexiglass in every color of the rainbow, and is part of series of works that pay tribute to architectural icons around the world. The sun lights the piece by day, and at night it’s lit by Arduino-controlled light sequences designed by Ryan Holsopple. Read more about it and see gorgeous photos — shot in daylight and at night — on TomFruin.com.

Rachel Whiteread’s Water Tower, SoHo, New York. According to the Museum of Modern Art’s website, British artist Whiteread was commissioned by the Public Art Fund in 1998 to create this work of public art, and she “scoured the city in search of a quintessentially New York subject.” Like many artists, she looked up and saw water towers, and conceived this sculpture, which is a resin cast of the interior of a once-functioning cedar water tank. According the MoMA website, “The translucent resin captures the qualities of the surrounding sky; the sculpture’s color and brightness change throughout the day and it becomes a near-invisible whisper at night.” Whiteread has called the work “a jewel on the skyline of Manhattan.” The sculpture now sits on the roof of MoMA, so you can check it out yourself next time you’re there. Read more and see a photograph on MoMA.org.

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Magical Water Towers

Water towers are as much a part of the New York City landscape as skyscrapers, and many people find as much art in the rooftop “hoops and staves of the Middle Ages” as they do in the city’s modern architecture. That’s a quote from Charles Kuralt, the great CBS newsman, who also loved the city’s water tanks and appreciated their place in our urban landscape as well as the ancient crafstmanship that produced them.

Today I got an email from a reader of this blog who pointed me to a short film that Kuralt would have loved, “The Water Tower Player” (or, its original French title, “Le Joueur de Citernes”). It’s a brief love poem to New York City’s water towers made by a French filmmaker named Emmanuel Gorinstein.  This film is a magical imagining that takes you into a realm that Maurice Sendak, Tim Burton and Hugh Ferris would recognize and feel happy in. It also brought to mind the characterization of another landscape icon that Marcel’s grandmother recalls in Proust’s Swann’s Way. Of the cathedral spire in Combray she says: “My dears, laugh at me if you like; it is not conventionally beautiful, but there is something in its quaint old face that pleases me. If it could play the piano, I’m sure it would play.” For his film about water towers, Gorinstein dispatches a violinist, and mon dieu, can he he play.

I won’t even attempt to describe the film here, I’ll just give you a link. It’s only fourteen minutes long, but find a time when you’re ready to be astounded, and moved, and then click. And when you’re done, here’s a link to Gorinstein’s blog, where you’ll find his marvelous, moody, often other-worldly artwork.

The upcoming Water Tank Project in Spring 2013 will provide countless new opportunities for artists to conjure with the city’s water towers. Lucky us.

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The Art of the Water Tower

The “zebra” water towers atop the Starrett-Lehigh Building

Readers of this blog know that I love New York’s water towers. One of the most-read posts in the archive is a piece about Charles Kuralt, the great CBS newsman who also adored the “hoops and staves of the Middle Ages” that define our city skyline.

Next spring a new public art project will pay tribute to our water towers, sponsored by a group called Word Above the Street, a non-profit that uses art to advocate for social justice and sustainability. The idea for the water tower project followed a 2007 trip to Ethiopia by filmmaker Mary Jordan, who realized that one of the severest problems in Africa is that water might be abundant but “it was never in the right place.” The people of Ethiopia lacked containers — buckets, bottles — to transport the water from its source to their homes.  She returned determined to launch a campaign about the scarcity of water, and in time, the Water Tank Project was conceived.

For six weeks in Spring 2013 hundreds of water towers all over New York City will be transformed by established and emerging figures in art, music and science. A contingent of students from the city’s public schools will also be involved. [click to continue…]

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