When the Smithsonian Institution’s Center for Folklife and Cultural Heritage undertook its New York City Project some years ago, work was a prominent item on the agenda. As part of the mission to document urban culture in the five boroughs, interviewers sought out people engaged in iconic city trades, from lox smoking to graffiti artistry, and asked them about their jobs.
Now that research has yielded a book, Lox, Stocks, and Backstage Broadway: Iconic Trades of New York City by Nancy Groce. With chapters on Broadway’s backstage artisans, Wall Street traders, subway workers and others, the book celebrates those whose jobs “create, maintain and nurture the very heart of Gotham.”
Our longtime member, Rosenwach Tank, was profiled in the book.
The city’s top tankers
The Rosenwach family has been making water tanks in New York since 1896, when Harris Rosenwach, an immigrant carpenter from Poland, bought the firm for $55. Today it’s run by his great-grandson Andy, 58, who started working in the business when was 22.
New York’s water towers: Once someone points them out to you, you can’t believe how many of them there are. Thousands upon thousands of huge wooden barrels are perched like alien spaceships on rooftops throughout the city. And more than half of them were manufactured by the Rosenwach Co. of Long Island City, Queens, and Greenpoint, Brooklyn.
Water towers began to appear in New York in the 19th century, when laws mandated that every building over six stories tall must have two sources of water or 3,500 gallons of water on the premises to assist firefighters. Building wooden tanks on rooftops seemed like an excellent solution.
When an old tank needs to be replaced, the entire process must be completed within 10 hours because the residents are dependent on water from the tank for drinking, plumbing and fire protection. The Rosenwach crew starts dismantling the old tank at about 6:30 in the morning. The old tank is drained, a hole is chopped near the bottom to let out any residual water, and then it is completely dismantled and taken off the structure by about 10 a.m. Meanwhile, workers start laying out the wood for the new tank, as well as the necessary pipe fittings and hoops. Once the new tank parts have been brought up in the elevator and the old tank has been brought down, it usually takes about three hours to install a new tank.
Most of Rosenwach’s workers have been with the firm for many years; a few followed their fathers into the trade.
“The company will go through a lot of people to get people who will stay around,” shop foreman Kenny Lewis remarked. “A lot of guys will show up on the roof, and that’s their last day. If they see what kind of work it is, if they don’t like heights, they’re not gonna be here.”
Each tank presents a unique challenge. Weather is sometimes a major factor, says Rosenwach, who told stories of servicing tanks with frozen pipes or trying to fix electrical malfunctions in the middle of snowstorms. On new buildings, tanks must go in whenever the building is ready, to maintain the construction schedule.
“We work whether it’s 90 degrees or 5 degrees outside. Whatever it is, we’re like the postmen,” he says.
At the heart of the craft is the ability to make a huge, watertight tank. Water tank building is “like barrel-making,” Lewis explained. “It would be like being a cooper 100 years ago. It’s the same principle, pretty much.”
Lewis’ job consists of milling wood for the staves, floors and roofs of each tank. With two other woodworkers, he fits them together in Rosenwach’s shop in Greenpoint, and then disassembles them for transportation to the installation site.
Wood is usually milled specifically for each job. Newcomers have to learn how to “run the lumber” through the milling machines, because a piece of lumber can’t just be taken and put in the machine. Any open knots have to go on the inside of the tank, so the wood touches the water and swells the knots closed.
Lewis prefers “keeping his feet on the ground” to doing installation work. To do that, he said, “You have to have it in your blood. It’s gotta be something that you’re very comfortable with, because if you’re not, it’s a dangerous place to be.”
Although he might not accompany his creations to their final rooftop homes, he is proud of what he does.
“There’s a lot of jobs where you don’t see your product out there. You know, you don’t see what you’re doing. And it’s part of the history of New York. They’ve always been here. And that’s nice; you can walk down the street and see what you did.”
Rosenwach echoes the sentiment.
“I love being in a business that can contribute something, produce something, give something to the city,” he says. “Once I was in traffic in one of the vans with the company name on it, and the guy passing us put his hand up and says, ‘Rosenwach Tanks, keep on going!’ That made me feel pretty good. It’s the service part. We look at the skyline and see that we did that.”