You may not see too many tourists from Iowa rushing past the Willis Tower to take pictures of the Chicago’s ancient water tanks. I don’t recall the tanks making the cut on the Architectural Foundation Loop walking tours, either. For that matter, travel brochures nearly always bypass water tanks in favor of The Bean.
I wonder, are water tanks the Rodney Dangerfield of Chicago structures?
They certainly embody the city’s gritty, industrial heritage. When you look out over the buildings in the West Loop, especially west of Halsted, you’ll see a variety of tanks. Their numbers are dwindling, few are still functional, and some look as rickety as an old wooden circus roller coaster.
But the tanks have a picturesque quality. Many around town are now used as unusual and attention-getting outdoor advertising spaces. And the subtle beauty of water tanks certainly isn’t lost on local artist Larry Green, who uses the tanks prominently in his paintings of the Chicago skyline.
“I had a job where I worked downtown, and I walked through the West Loop and I started taking photos of water tanks, so I eventually did more and more detailed paintings of the tanks,” Green said. “I’m an artist and my paintings incorporate the skyline and the water tanks are a big part of that.”
Green even assembled a book of his photographs and paintings, “Water Tanks of Chicago: A Vanishing Urban Legacy,” which will be available at a book-signing event from 6:00 to 9:00pm on May 2nd at Fortunate Discoveries, 1022 West Armitage Avenue.
“I came up with the idea of a book that was simple, not too involved, that told some of the history, and school kids and adults could read and understand,” said Green, a graduate of the School of the Art Institute of Chicago.
“I had so many photos to choose from, it was hard to pick which ones to include,” he said. “Actually, three or four of the tanks in the book are gone, torn down. They’re a vanishing legacy. Every time I see one disappear, I know when one is gone, like any special landmark, you feel for them.”
Green explained why so many older buildings in Chicago have water tanks.
“At the turn of the century almost every building had a water tank on top of the building,” he said. “After the fire, there were some that were built for the purpose of emergencies, but the majority were put on larger buildings to create the plumbing. There was no force-fed water system at the turn of the [20th] century, no water treatment plant to pump up into the buildings.”
The tanks lost favor after modern plumbing techniques became common, but one of the main reasons they started to disappear from the cityscape was deterioration.
“Most of the tanks were made out of cedar and oak and over time they started to rot and decay,” Green said.