Chicago Rooftop Water Tank

As a factory town, Chicago had a skyline that was once studded with stocky wooden water tanks, a burly rooftop pageant crucial for fighting fires in an era before widespread electric pumps.

In the face of modern technology, the tanks are at risk–left to rot or to be torn down in the spread of flashy factory rehabs and condo conversions, and their newfangled firefighting systems.

But seeing stark beauty in the tanks’ brawny practicality, preservationists hope a proposed city ordinance set for a Wednesday vote will keep them from being haphazardly torn down–and maybe preserve a lost treasure of redwood and cypress stranded on city rooftops.


As Chicago artifacts go, the tanks lack the grace of terra cotta, gleam of glass-and-steel, or superlative appeal of tallest or biggest or only. But together, they are a symbol of Chicago at the intersection of immigrants, industry and growth.

“They are a distinctive presence in Chicago,” Mayor Richard Daley said in a statement calling for their preservation. “They are part of our historical and architectural heritage and we want to ensure that they remain part of the city’s future.”

Once numbering in the thousands, only 178 remain by the city’s count. A Chicago company that maintains them counts even fewer–only 144, of which 90 still function as water tanks.

To save them, landmarks officials have had to walk a fine line to selectively safeguard the tanks but ignore the buildings below, which often pale in comparison.

It is the latest move in an effort that recently brought an architectural contest to reimagine the tanks–Wind turbines? Bird sanctuaries? Sculpture gardens?–a move that provided interesting but somehow hopeless possibilities.

In contrast comes a lone but steady voice with a suggestion simple enough to work: Use them.

Chicago once rivaled New York for sheer number of rooftop water tanks, their squat silhouettes etching a muscular profile on the skyline.

The ubiquity of Chicago’s tanks was a product of the Great Chicago Fire in 1871, after which civic worthies decided every factory, warehouse and public building would have its own means to fight fire.

Answering the call, barrel-making immigrants from Sweden and Germany built the mammoth gravity-fed fire-suppression systems.


To do it, they tapped a growing nation’s wealth of old growth California redwood and Gulf Coast cypress.

The city’s roofs were transformed into an urban forest, on the tops of which a German-built Wendnagel tank could be distinguished from a Swedish-built Johnson & Carlson model by the spire capping it.
On rooftops where heat shimmers off tarpaper and gentrified streetscaping is hidden from view, the water tanks held sway like foremen on a factory floor. Other companies–Ajax, Challenge, Caldwell–mounted competition, but in the march of progress, only Wendnagel and Johnson & Carlson survived. In 1965, Johnson & Carlson bought out everyone else.
High-quality workmanship and top-notch materials were common to all. The results were impeccable–a redwood tank fetching $3,000 in 1950 would last 50 years. For $300 more, a cypress tank might last 100.

Only the best boards from the tallest trees were used. No leaky knot or gnarl could be tolerated in a water tank, for obvious reasons.


It would be impossible to replace them today, said Ronald Carlson, 62, president and sole employee of Johnson & Carlson Tank Sales and Service Co., heir to four generations of Swedish-American barrelmakers, and maybe the only man in Chicago who knows how to keep the city’s remaining tanks standing.

Carlson’s tiny, one-room shoebox of a shop in the Mt. Greenwood neighborhood is testament to the tanks’ precarious state. Hanging on a wall, a map from the mid-1990s shows 373 wooden tanks. Ten years later, half are gone. Jammed into file cabinets are specifications and repairs done for every water tank left. There are only two cabinets.

Searching for an ancient and all-but-forgotten piece of the Chicago skyline, Carlson shuffled through yellowed papers in a tall wooden file cabinet in an office that smelled vaguely of pipe smoke and old paper. The records go back to 1893.

He can tell you that the biggest tank in the city sits atop 927 W. Blackhawk St., holds 60,000 gallons, and was once hit by a rifle bullet on a New Year’s Eve. The smallest ones hold 15,000 gallons, and most still in place were built during a wave of industrialization in the 1950s.


He has heard the proposals for reworking the tanks, and they leave him non-plussed. He imagines the insurance cost of turning them into giant hot tubs for yuppies, and can’t see the logic in using them as tree planters for rooftop gardens.

“Right over my head,” he said. “The best use for it is what it’s intended for, and that’s fire protection.”

Electric-powered water pumps have replaced most rooftop tanks. But Carlson looks at the systems his great-grandfather built and sees the perfect machine, as reliable as gravity.

Useful or not, City Hall wants them to stay.

August 23, 1911, on today’s date in 1911…………an article about Chicago Water Tanks…………Municipal Journal article. Water Tanks Cause of Impure Water “Chicago, Ill.-Flat dwellers who patronize Lake Michigan for drinking purposes can get a certificate of quality from the City Health Department. Health Commissioner Young declared that any samples brought to the department drawn from faucets in apartment houses will be tested, and if found to be impure orders will be given to the owners of the buildings to cleanse the tanks on the roofs from which the supply is drawn. Much of the danger from drinking water comes from the neglect of the owners of apartment houses to keep these tanks properly cleaned. The regulations of the Health Department require that these tanks be covered and sufficiently protected to keep cats or other animals from wandering into them. In many of them, however, moss and other vegetable matter accumulates. In practically all buildings more than two stories in height tanks are necessary in order to supply water to the upper floors.”…..


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