Ask Geoffrey on WTTW Chicago: Chicago’s Vanishing Water Tanks. They’re rare now, but rooftop water tanks once stood sentinel atop every large building in the city

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Ask Geoffrey: Chicago’s Vanishing Water Tanks, Erica Gunderson, WTTW Chicago, 7/16/20

“They’re rare now, but rooftop water tanks once stood sentinel atop every large building in the city, keeping them safe from threat of fire. Geoffrey Baer is here to say thanks for those tanks.

“On top of buildings around Chicago’s neighborhoods, I frequently see water tanks or water tank platforms where the water tank has been removed. What are they for and are they still in use? — Bryan Bacon, West Loop

“We answered a similar question to this one back in 2012 but this is a good time to do an update. Back then, we described the tanks as a vanishing vestige of another era in Chicago, and sadly, they’re continuing to disappear from the skyline.

“The purpose of these tanks was to provide a reliable, easily-accessed water supply to put out fires. The water in the tanks is fed to firefighters by gravity, so it’s almost a fail-safe supply for emergencies. After the Great Fire of 1871, ordinances were passed requiring these tanks on top of warehouses, factories and public buildings. The law spawned a whole industry in water tank construction and maintenance.

“Many firms were owned by German and Swedish immigrants who were experts in high-quality wooden barrel-making. Boards chosen for tank construction had to be free of any knots and gnarls to prevent leaks. Redwood tanks could last 50 years, and cypress ones for a century. Each company added its own signature flourishes to its tanks, such as ornamental caps on the cone-shaped barrel tops.

“The average water tank is about 16-by-16 and holds about 20,000 gallons of water, but they can get a lot bigger. The Carbit Paints tank atop 927 W. Blackhawk holds about three times that.

At their peak, there were at least 1,300 of these tanks across the city, and maybe many more. Today, buildings have electric pumps on site to supply fire suppression systems so the water tanks have become obsolete.

Ward Miller, executive director of the organization Preservation Chicago, estimates that about 125 tanks remain in the city and about 90 are still in use. That’s down from 140 remaining tanks in 2012.

That organization and others have been sounding the alarm about the dwindling number of tanks in Chicago over the past 20 years or so.

In 2006, Richard M. Daley’s administration designated the tanks as historic structures and required building owners to explore options for preserving or reusing the tanks before demolishing them.” (Gunderson, 7/16/20)

Watch the full story at WTTW Chicago

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