Righetto Serbatoi S.r.l.

The story of Chicago`s water tanks after the raging fire of 1871

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Courtesy of Righetto Serbatoi S.r.l.

Now they are rare, but once the water tanks on the roof were the sentry on top of every large building in the city, protecting them from the threat of fire.

The purpose of these tanks was to provide a reliable and easily accessible water supply for putting out fires. The water in the tanks is fed by gravity firefighters, so it is almost a safe reserve for emergencies.

After the great fire of 1871, ordinances were required that required these tanks on top of warehouses, factories and public buildings. The law spawned an entire industry for the construction and maintenance of water tanks.

Many companies were owned by German and Swedish immigrants experienced in the manufacture of high quality wooden barrels. The choices for building the tank had to be knotless to avoid leaks. Sequoia tanks could last 50 years and cypress tanks for a century.

The average water tank was approximately 16 by 16 meters and contained approximately 20,000 liters of water, but they could have become much larger. The Carbit Paints tank atop 927 W. Blackhawk held about three times.

At their peak, there were at least 1,300 of these tanks across the city. Today, buildings have on-site electric pumps to provide fire suppression systems, so much so that water tanks have become obsolete.

In 2006, the administration of Richard M. Daley designated the reservoirs as historic structures and asked building owners to explore options for preserving or reusing cisterns before demolishing them.

Across the city, the cost of maintaining water tanks has unfortunately led some building owners to demolish them instead of maintaining them, but some have become so iconic devices that removing them has caused cries from the community.

And where they cannot be saved on site, reuse is sometimes the option to follow: a modern example of reuse of water tanks is at the Skinner Elementary School in the West Loop neighborhood by the SMNG-A architecture studio, where a historic cistern has been restored and is used to collect rainwater, useful for irrigating the green roof of the school.

Even if the tank is gone, the platform can still be reused: in many neighborhoods, the old platforms of water tanks are full of antennas for cell phones.

The latest reuse story concerns a metal tank in Adams and LaSalle, which survived the Chicago fire. It was originally built for municipal water supply, not for fire suppression. It was converted into the first public library in Chicago to house the 8,000 books sent as gifts by the English people, including one from Queen Victoria herself, to start a free library while Chicago was recovering from the disastrous fire.

The story of Chicago's water tanks after the raging fire of 1871

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