Back to the Future: Rosenwach’s wood tanks grace Brooklyn skyscrapers’ rooftops
Eye on Real Estate
Talk about Throwback Thursday.
If a barrel maker from the mid-19th Century time-traveled to the present, he could get a job from Andrew Rosenwach.
Rosenwach heads the company his Polish immigrant great-grandfather Harris Rosenwach bought in 1896 for $55 and turned into Rosenwach Tank Co.
The company was already 30 years old when his family took ownership. It had been launched by barrel maker William Dalton. Harris Rosenwach worked for Dalton before buying the company from Dalton’s widow after his boss’s death.
Today, it continues to make and maintain the cylindrical wooden water receptacles that rise up on rooftops throughout the five boroughs. The craftsmanship that goes into making these old-fashioned icons of the skyline dates back to the days when coopers made wood barrels by hand.
And icons they are, having caught the eye of artists including Edward Hopper, who painted wood water tanks in stark New York City scenes, and Tom Fruin, whose water tank sculpture made of 1,000 scraps of Plexiglas stands atop 20 Jay St. in DUMBO near an actual wood tank.
The wood tanks have also captured the imagination of multitudes of New Yorkers. Andrew Rosenwach is reminded of this when he drives a car with his company’s name on it.
“When I get out of my car sometimes, people say, ‘Let me give you a big hug,’” he told us in a recent interview at his company’s Long Island City, Queens, headquarters.
Old-school though they may be, the tanks make it possible for residents in new high-rises such as AVA DoBro at 100 Willoughby St. in Downtown Brooklyn to take showers and wash dishes.
Developers of many new buildings choose wood tanks over costlier steel tanks as a means of boosting water pressure. The boost is necessary because New York City has peculiarly low water pressure.
Wood tanks atop the Hotel Indigo and 100 Jay St.
There are an estimated 16,000 wood tanks citywide, with possibly 1,000 in Brooklyn.
They can be seen on streets where buildings are more than six stories tall.
They’re on Downtown Brooklyn rooftops, from the Brooklyner apartment tower at 111 Lawrence St. to the Hotel Indigo at 229-231 Duffield St. to the landmarked Offerman Building at 505 Fulton St., which Albert Laboz is renovating.
In DUMBO, the water tank atop condo tower 100 Jay St. can be seen from blocks away. So can the tank that tops Williamsburg’s Gretsch Building, the musical instrument factory at 60 Broadway that was converted to condos.
Isseks Brothers is another New York City wood water tank maker; it was founded in 1890. You can tell that a tank is Rosenwach’s rather than the competition’s because its cone-shaped cover is topped with a rosette fashioned from four pieces of wood shaped like capital Rs.
The Williamsburg wood mill sold for $10 million
We had our interview at Rosenwach’s 40-25 Crescent St. headquarters because in late December 2012 the company sold the Brooklyn facility it had owned for many decades.
The wood mill, for prepping the cedar planks that are made into water tanks, was a former stable located at 87 N. 9th St. in Williamsburg.
“We ended up having such value when we cashed out of it,” Rosenwach told us.
One day, he got a letter in the mail offering to buy the property. He said no because it wasn’t the price he wanted.
Three or four weeks later the would-be purchaser sent another letter with an offering price that pleased Rosenwach. He decided he would sell the wood mill if he could find another industrial property to buy in a tax-free 1031 exchange.
He wound up buying a factory building with 20 acres of land at 1100 Randolph Road in Somerset, N.J., and moved the mill there. The Williamsburg property sold for $10 million, city Finance Department records indicate.
He looked at a Brooklyn location for the mill, on Varick Avenue in East Williamsburg. In the end, though, staying in Brooklyn didn’t seem like the ideal option. “We’d be going backwards trying to duplicate what we had,” he said.
We visited the Williamsburg wood mill several years ago, and found it intriguing. It was full of machinery made in the 1930s.
Rosenwach has one awful memory from the N. 9th Street facility. On the night of July 4, 2009, a two-alarm blaze damaged the mill yard.
“Thank God it didn’t hurt the building. It was a terrible fire,” he said.
“What an event — it ages you in a second.
“I remember getting the call — it was surreal.”
Gothamist reported that witnesses said young men were setting off fireworks nearby, and some landed on Rosenwach’s property.
The fifth generation steps up
Andrew, the fourth-generation Rosenwach to run the company, has been working there for 40 years. He is 62.
For nearly a quarter-century, the Johns Hopkins grad, who has a New York University MBA — and a master plumber’s license — worked alongside his father, the late Wallace Rosenwach.
Now Andrew’s son, Henry, 26, works alongside Andrew after toiling for two years at a Manhattan real estate firm.
“Henry is a natural closer,” Andrew Rosenwach said. “He is the man with the Midas touch.
“I tell people, ‘If you find I’m abrasive and rough, the company is now run by my son, who is the image of my father.”
Everybody loved Wallace, Andrew said.
Diversification is a life-saver
Rosenwach has 120 employees — which is a good thing since there’s “overwhelmingly huge demand” for the company’s services because of a citywide construction boom plus a crop of water tanks that need to be rebuilt. The cedar tanks last for around 30 years.
Rosenwach is able to keep a staff of this size fully employed when business slows and at the ready when water-tank work ratchets up because it diversified many years ago.
There are several companies under the Rosenwach Group umbrella, such as cooling tower manufacturer Cool Water Technologies and building restoration company Herbert Rose Inc.
Lessons learned from Herbert Rose Inc.’s rooftop repair work led to the design of a new tank cover that increases the wood tanks’ longevity.
“The old cap was paper-thin and not 100 percent waterproof,” Rosenwach said.
The new cover — which is an eye-catching tan color — is so strong it can support a bosun’s chair with an adult sitting in it, which is how tank maintenance is done. It is made of layered sheets of ceramic-coated roofing granules, rubber-asphalt blend, fiberglass reinforcement and self-adhering modified bitumen.
By March, Rosenwach Group operations located in its Long Island City building will move to the New Jersey property. Most of the Crescent Street building will be rented out, with Rosenwach keeping some space for staging trucks. And Rosenwach will open an office in a property it owns at 43-02 Ditmars Blvd. in Astoria, Queens.
Even when it increases its presence in New Jersey, the wood tank maker will remain a quintessential New York institution.
“Rosenwach — it’s a New York State of mind,” Rosenwach deadpanned. “I’ll have to talk to Billy Joel.”
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