For many years the Rosenwach Water Tank Company made the water tanks that dotted the New York skyline in WIlliamsburg. wooden water tanks are still icons of the New York skyline. There are about 10,000 – more than in any other American city. They feature prominently in the works of famous new York artists Like Edward Hopper and the Ash can school.
Rosenwach is the oldest water tank company in the United States. It was started on the Lower East Side in 1866 by barrel maker William Dalton. In 1894, he hired Polish immigrant Harris Rosenwach. When Dalton died two years later, his widow Mary sold the employee his “lumber, tools and goodwill” for $55. The company moved to Williamsburg in 1924.
The wooden tanks on top of buildings all over the city are a quirk of New York’s infrastructure. Wooden water tanks were vital in the early twentieth century, as the city grew skyward. Water pressure only went up to the fifth floor. For taller buildings they needed a source of water for the upper floors. That’s why the water towers were built. They’re also the way many of the city’s older buildings get their water supply, and have enough water stored to feed the sprinklers if there’s a fire.
Wood tanks are cheaper than steel, which must be lined so rust doesn’t seep into the water. They use wood because just three inches of wood insulate the tank as well as 24 inches of concrete would. Rosenwach crews build 200 to 300 wooden tanks a year, and top each one with a decorative rosette made of four R-shaped pieces of wood to mark them as their handiwork. They use cedar wood because it was cheaper than concrete. The planks were prepped for years at a company wood mill in a former stable in Williamsburg, Brooklyn, using machines that dated from the 1930s.
Although the company is still in business it will probably never return to its location on North Ninth Street and Wythe Avenue. On July 4th 2009 a fire started in their Wiliamsburg yard that damaged the property. Allegedly, Hipster celebrating Independence Day shot Roman candles into the yard causing a severe fire. The company probably realized that the fire was a blessing since it would be able to sell the site to real estate developers for huge money.
Rosenwach’s one hundred and fifty year old business is slowly dying out. They service only older buildings since newer buildings do not use their water tanks. Although they have tried to diversify into other areas, building and servicing water tanks is still the firm’s main source of revenue.
in 2001 when the Smithsonian Institute did its folklife festival with New York as a theme it chose to include Rosenwach water tanks as an iconic New York symbol and they wanted to show people the company’s tanks. The water tank for the festival had openings carved out so people could wander through and presumably feel what it is like to be water inside a New York water tank. The tanks was built in the company’s Brooklyn, factory and trucked to Washington in pieces, where it was re-assembled.
Rosenwach was the last remnant of the cooperage business that was once a major Williamsburg industry. Coopers built barrels that were a key component in early shipping and transport. Sadly, barrel making and water tower construction are just a memory.