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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.

As someone who cares deeply about water conservation as well as the beautiful structures that adorn 6+ story buildings all over town, I’m very excited this project, and plan to follow it closely.  Over the past year I’ve been doing a lot of aerial photography around the High Line, and one of the great surprises has been the new view of water towers that a high perch affords. The photo at the top of this post is a perfect example. Anyway who loves water towers will instantly recognize that cluster of tanks that sits atop the Starrett-Lehigh Building. But did you know that the roofs of the tanks are painted in a zebra pattern? I had no idea, until I got up to the Ohm apartment building and looked down on them. I also got a great view of one of my favorite tanks in town, which sits on a brick pedestal on the roof of the old Central Stores warehouse and looks like a Roman ruin. Another revelation: the roofs of the tanks atop the old Otis Elevator factory — a fixture in the neighborhood during the Industrial Revolution — look very new, as though they’ve been recently replaced.

The slide show below includes a great many water towers around the High Line. I’ll keep adding to it, so check back frequently. If you have a favorite, email me the location and I’ll take a photo and add it to the slideshow.

For more info. about the Water Tank Project, visit the official website. You can watch this video, which includes an interview with Andy Rosenwach, great grandson of Wallace Rosenbach, founder of one of two companies that continues to manufacture New York’s water tanks. Rosenwach immigrated from Poland and founded his company in the 1880s. Today the grandson comments:  “I’ve always said that Paris has the Eiffel Tower, Pisa has the Leaning Tower, and New York has the water tower.”

To read my piece about water towers in ON THE HIGH LINE, click here (it’s a low-res PDF).

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