Andrew Rosenwach, center, and his son Henry, right, of the Rosenwach Group, one of the three companies that install wooden water tanks in New York City. Christopher Gregory for The New York Times

Getting water to New Yorkers is a family business

New York is many things: dynamic and dense, artistic and competitive, vivacious and sometimes, particularly in summer, a bit smelly. The list of traits goes on and on, but the word “quaint” isn’t on it. And yet one of the city’s most familiar signposts is a charming, rustic throwback: the wooden water tank.

For over a century, the basic design of these tanks, which are essentially giant wooden barrels, has gone largely unchanged. So as each one ages out of its working life, it is replaced by another member of the same family, and the tradition marches on.

As it happens, the same can be said about the people who put them in place.

Installing, maintaining and replacing wooden water tanks in the city is largely handled by three companies: Isseks Brothers, the Rosenwach Group and American Pipe and Tank. Each is an old family business that has operated for at least three generations, and each has a next generation who parents and grandparents are hoping will take over.

“It’s kind of in our blood, I would say,” said Henry Rosenwach, 23, who spent summers in high school and college scrambling around on rooftops with tank crews, always with strict instructions to keep both of his teenage feet on the ground. But the final decision to join up, he said, arrived at a practical moment. “I think it was at the point when it was time for me to get a job,” he said.

Though they look old-fashioned, wooden tanks are still very much in use, even in the city’s new luxury buildings, like the stratospherically expensive condominiums at 15 Central Park West, said David Hochhauser, who owns Isseks along with his brother and sister. Pressure in the city’s pipes will take water up only about half a dozen stories, so a building taller than just a few floors requires either a pumping system or a system of tanks, which shifts some of the burden to the force of gravity for a sprinkler system or, say, tap water.

The changes in water-tank construction over the past 100 years, Mr. Hochhauser said, have amounted to little more than the introduction of power tools, and perhaps the movement to sell the cedar from the discarded old tanks (they last about 30 years) to hip furniture makers specializing in reclaimed wood.

Water tanks for buildings can also be made of steel, but they are less recognizable because they are mostly enclosed — imagine how hot a steel vat would get on a rooftop in August, or how quickly it might freeze on a January night.

“Wood does very well outside,” said Steven Silver, a president, and a third-generation Silver, at American Pipe and Tank, which entered the wooden tank market about 30 years ago. “That is where it’s designed to be.”

Ken Lewis has been working at Rosenwach for 35 years. For over a century, tank design has gone largely unchanged. Christopher Gregory for The New York Times
And incidentally, the wooden tank seems to offer a bit more romance than its metal cousin.

Ken Lewis has been working at Rosenwach for 35 years. For over a century, tank design has gone largely unchanged. Christopher Gregory for The New York Times

“You can’t imagine how many people are just so interested,” Scott Hochhauser, David’s brother, said of the emblematic towers.

“Some are interested in the history; a lot of artists like them for the beauty; and there are people who are into the mechanics of them,” he added. “But I don’t get too many people call up to say, ‘Hey, tell me about those steel tanks.’ ”

After graduating from Vanderbilt University, Mr. Rosenwach started training to join the family business in earnest. He spent a year tailing his father, Andrew, and is now working a two-year stint with a commercial real estate company, the kind of business that buys his family’s products, which also include cooling towers and furniture.

But of course, the subtle indoctrination into the family ways begins much earlier than formal training.

Scott Hochhauser said his two daughters, now in college and in high school, used to join him frequently in the office and on rooftops when they were younger. Mr. Silver of American Pipe and Tank recalls popping his elder son, Jason, into a stroller and zipping him over to job sites. His wife, Helen Silver, director of client relations at the company, laughs when she describes a picture of their younger son, Matthew, as a 3-year-old, standing in the center of a tank and brandishing a hammer.

When the brothers were asked if they planned to follow the family tradition, Matthew piped up.

“I think I might,” he said slowly. “But ——”

His mother quickly interrupted. “College comes first,” she said.

Among the three Hochhausers who run Isseks, there are five children, and while none have officially taken the baton, Scott and David Hochhauser say they are confident they will find a taker.

“As a college kid, water tanks aren’t sexy,” David Hochhauser said, at the company’s offices on Broome Street. Stacks of lumber are piled on the ground floor, and the high school portraits of each of the three owners, with gloriously feathered hair and adorned in 1970s polyester, hang on the second story.

“But as you get a little bit older, and you’ve worked for other people,” Mr. Hochhauser continued, “the concept of a small family-owned business, and the flexibility to maybe go to the doctor or the dentist at some point, that becomes a little more appealing.”

Besides, as the young Jason Silver said of the family tanks, they are “a landmark of Manhattan.”