By Melissa Hathaway
CHICAGO, Ill. – An engineering challenge for Chicago at present is developing a plan to deal effectively and strategically with the city’s remaining wooden water towers, some of which are going to pieces. As late as the mid twentieth century, there were approximately 5,000 water towers in the city. Today, the differing estimates of how many water towers remain in Chicago puts the number somewhere between 130 and 170.
Water tanks in Chicago are widely seen as a symbol of strength and the capacity to rebuild, because many of them were built as a response to the famous Great Chicago Fire in 1871. They held water supplies for residents and also helped with water pressure for firefighting. Some towers are still used currently to supply water to people living in the buildings under them, while others are unused. It is unclear how many of Chicago’s remaining water towers are actually used for water supplies or fire protection.
Although buildings the same age as the towers rarely collapse, buildings receive much more attention and maintenance than water towers do. Water towers receive inspections on the same schedule as fire escapes, which are looked at once every five years. But water towers are obviously much bigger structures than fire escapes.
It is not the towers themselves that are usually the issue; but the metal structures that hold the towers onto the roofs of buildings. These structures are made of steel, which can age badly if not carefully maintained.
Although the city government of Chicago may not have the necessary resources to support engineers in investigating the reasons for collapse and developing plans for how best to restore or re-use the water towers, there may be potential for sourcing private revenue streams in order to encourage engineers to take this valuable task on.
Diversey Harbor Water Tower
A 5,000 gallon water tank recently fell from the roof of the legendary Brewster building on the North Side of Chicago, causing several injuries. The Brewster building was formerly home to Charlie Chaplin and also appeared in the “Child’s Play” film. The water tower atop the building was the subject of a structural engineering report submitted in 2010 that made recommendations for repairs. The tower was then inspected again within months and was found fundamentally safe, although it is not clear if all the recommended repairs were made and if the reasons for the collapse were due to failures of the engineer that submitted the report.