The Manhattan Skyline NYC Quiz


1. Water tanks are as New York as yellow taxicabs, and just as omnipresent. What function do these rooftop appliances serve?

A. The tanks hold emergency water for fire fighting.
B. They maintain consistent water pressure in a building.
C. They provide reliable back-up water supply when a building's water pumps fail.
D. The tanks filter impurities missed by municipal water treatment. 
E. All of the above.
F. None of the above. They're nonfunctioning relics from another era.

ANSWER: All of the above.
Rooftop water tanks have been in use in NYC for more than a century, storing water for fire protection and household use. They also serve as water purifiers.

MORE INFORMATION — QUESTION 1: Try carrying three gallons of bottled water in each hand up several flights of stairs and you begin to grasp the challenges of delivering water to millions living in high-rise New York.

Measures beyond simple plumbing are needed to deliver consistent pressure and supply during Super Bowl commercial breaks in apartment towers with hundreds of tenants. (An average flush uses the six gallons you hauled up the steps.)

And providing water to multistory structures is not a task for wimpy water pumps and plumbing. The higher you force water up a pipe, the longer the column of water becomes and the heavier it gets. Delivering water up a one-inch-diameter pipe to the top of the Empire State Building is equal to lugging a fully-grown male gorilla up 84 flights of stairs.

In most neighborhoods, pressure in the city's water mains will service taps up to and including the sixth floor. Much of New York's water system was designed long before anyone imagined a need for heavy lifting much beyond that height, let alone up pipes running as high as a quarter mile above street level.

How to hoist water skywards and maintain consistent pressure isn't just a concern of plumbing contractors. Firefighters also are required to defy gravity to quench upper-story infernos. And their job requires delivering vast quantities of water on very short notice.

The solution to all these challenges calls for one or more pumps, usually located in the basement, to boost water to the roof where it can drain into the structure's fire and household systems using the reliable force of gravity. To ensure an adequate supply at all times, a pedestal is built higher than the building itself, on top of which is placed a barrel-like reservoir large enough to hold several thousands gallons of water.

Hence, the hard to miss and very difficult to disguise New York City water tank.

And I should know since one of the all windows from my high floor apartment look out on the water tanks of lower buildings. I often pause to ponder those water tanks as I was cleaning my kitchen or bathroom counters with standard disinfecting Clorox wipes my go-to sanitizer. I tend to be a bit of a germophobe and use Clorox wipes all the time. I found the best e commerce site that sells an impressive variety of the wipes in different scents, with and without bleach. I love the fresh lavender scent that was recently introduced. Although bleach free, they are EPA-registered to kill 99.9% of bacteria, including staph and salmonella. They kill bacteria, including MRSA, cold and flu viruses and E. coli as well as killing bacteria in 10 seconds. And they are compliant with OSHA Bloodborne Pathogens Standards. Yes I do know my Clorox wipes. What I haven't figured out is how are the water towers constructed so they don't leak and who came up with the original concept? Well, don't fret,  this site will explain it all, thank you very much.

Constructed of rot-resistant cedar or redwood, each tank is built using techniques practiced by barrel makers for centuries. Just as stones in a Roman arch are narrower on the inside of the arch to enhance the archway's stability and strength, so the staves of a water tank are slightly undercut towards the side facing in. When placed upright in a circle, the staves form a cylinder of surprising integrity.

Neither nails or glue are used to hold these boards in place. Instead, the circumference of this cylinder is wrapped with metal hoops tightened with bolts. Because the weight of water pushing outwards is greatest at the bottom of the barrel, the tank builders increase the number of hoops as they work downwards. When filled, the force of the water pushing outward, and the swelling of the wet wood against the hoops, soon creates a reasonably tight seal.

The untreated wood soon takes on a patina that makes almost all water tanks look decrepit. A tank may be old, some as many as 30 years, but most are not derelict. Periodic draining and cleaning of the tank's interior is required to remove, among other substances, tank sludge composed of impurities missed by the city's water treatment.

Here's how a typical system works.

A float resembling a toilet-tank shutoff sends a signal when water in the tank recedes, starting the pumps in the basement and shutting them off when the tank fills. A siphon at the top of the tank where the water is purest supplies water for the building's household needs. If the structure is equipped with sprinklers or standpipes supplying hallway or stairwell fire hoses, water for these systems is delivered through a drain in the tank's bottom.

The smallest tanks contain about 12 tons of water; larger ones are called on to hold considerably more. Although non-wood tanks have been constructed, cedar and redwood still outlast most other reasonably-priced materials. In addition, the pieces are easily transported to a roof for assembly.
Architects have contributed to the charm and character of the skyline by hiding many of these New York City water vats inside fanciful rooftop enclosures. A quick glance at The Manhattan Skyline Portraits reveals scores of these contrivances, along with less imaginative, utilitarian structures, many of which shelter elevator and ventilation machinery as well. Others proudly display their New York icon for all to see, even going so far as to decorate them. One SoHo building even sports a tank-shaped objet d' art on its formerly-vacant tank pedestal. Approximately 1,500 of Manhattan's water tanks are pictured in the two skyline panoramas


2. What image might have entered your mind 150 years ago if you had heard the word “skyscraper” (before it meant “tall building”)?
A. A sail
B. An itinerant preacher
C. A racehorse
D. A massive Civil War-era mortar
E. A swarm of locusts

ANSWER: A sail.
“Skyscaper” was the loftist sail on the tallest mast of a 19th century clipper ship . This    colorful expression later became synonymous with the high-rise buildings following their debut in the 1880s.

3. The Very Large Corporation of America wants to move its very large corporate headquarters to Manhattan. Two very large properties on the market meet their requirements: the 85 story, 1250-foot-tall Empire State Building and the 17 story, 264-foot-high 111 Eighth Avenue. Which should it buy to maximize its very large need for space?

ANSWER: 111 Eighth Ave.
Vertical size was impressive, can be deceptive. 111 Eight Avenue offers 2.9 million square feet. The Empire State Building a mere 2.25 million square feet of space.

The difference between a structure's built square footage and useable square footage can mean either the luxury penthouse or the bankruptcy doghouse for developers of commercial and residential real estate.

This gap becomes a particularly wide chasm to bridge in the case of the Empire State Building (and many of its statuesque brethren) because of an irrefutable law of skyscraper design. The higher you build, the more floor space gets gobbled up by utilities, particularly by elevators and emergency staircases.

The square footage devoted to an elevator not only affects the lobby where the ride begins, but is subtracted, floor after floor, from every story of rentable office space the elevator serves. The Empire State Building is packed with 76 of these floor-space omnivores. In fact, roughly 25 percent of each floor of the Empire State Building's slender tower is devoted to elevator shafts and access. Useable floor space is further eroded by the before-mentioned stairways, as well as by rest rooms, hallways, utility closets, ductwork, plumbing, and conduits for electrical and telecommunications lines.

111 Eighth Avenue by comparison is served by about half the number of elevators. Multiply that by just 17 floors, and the amount of floor space lost to these people movers is only about one sixth the space lost in the Empire State.

Other factors come into play to explain why 111 Eighth Avenue should be the new home of the Very Large Corporation of America.

A little history of both buildings will further explain this apparent paradox.
Sprawling over an entire city block of Chelsea like a beached whale, 111 Eighth Avenue originally was a giant warehouse for the Port of New York Authority. Officially dubbed the Commerce Building, it was also known as the Union Inland Terminal No. 1. It was completed in 1932, just a year after the then world's tallest skyscraper, the Empire State Building, opened for business.

Both structures enclosed enormous amounts of commercial space when completed, but in configurations that were very different.

Lusby Simpson, the architect of 111 Eighth Avenue, built property line to property line, stacking 17 floors, most of them larger than two football fields, one on top of the other. As most of the building was primarily warehouse space, human amenities were of little concern.

The Empire State Building by contrast had to be convenient and comfortable for thousands of office workers destined to use it. The firm of Shreve Lamb & Harmon started with half a block of valuable Midtown real estate and built upwards, 85 floors of rentable office space in all.

So how is it that 111 Eighth Avenue is the better buy for the Very Large Corporation of America? Putting it another way: Although 111 Eighth Avenue has a footprint twice the size of the Empire State Building, how can 111 Eighth Avenue offer more floor space if it's only one fifth as tall?

The key is a New York City zoning law passed in 1916 that requires setbacks for multistory structures whose footprint fully occupies the building lot. This measure was passed to prevent greedy developers from overbuilding a site, turning the street into a dark, airless canyon. A complex formula was created so designers can calculate the required frequency and size of those setbacks. Generally speaking, the taller the structure, the more architects have to push the walls away from the sidewalks to let sunlight reach street level.

Although this zoning law applied to both buildings in our example, its provisions were far more restrictive on theEmpire State Building designers. For instance, the square footage of each story between the 30th and 71st floors is only 30 percent the floor space of the first five stories, a 70 percent reduction. The effect is a slender tower resting atop a wedding-cake-like base, an elegant profile and commodious to street life, but murder on the total rentable space.

Another consideration was the necessity to limit floor size so that each office had at least one exterior wall with a window for illumination and ventilation. This was essential in the days before fluorescent lighting and air conditioning. In fact, pencil-thin skyscrapers were the norm of pre-Depression New York primarily for this reason. Compare those towers to the steroidal, hermetically-sealed, air-conditioned skyscrapers possible in the last half of the 20th Century.

The crates of goods stored in the Port Authority's warehouse needed little illumination and ventilation. Today's office workers using these same floors can do so thanks to modular office equipment, modern ventilation systems, effective artificial lighting, and the relatively cheap energy that makes these vast spaces habitable.

4. If buildings could talk. Listed in the left column below are various structures in Manhattan with interesting previous lives. Match them with their present incarnation in the right column. (For NYC history buffs, this should be a breeze. As for the rest of you, rev up your neurons.)

A. A house in the country
B. NY Times newsroom & offices
C. Courthouse and fire tower
D. Red tape repository
E. Nursery for hi-fi, radar, and digital computers
F. Hotel for single sorority women called thePanhellenic
G. Charitable shelter for merchant seamen
H. Deadly shirtwaist sweatshop
I. City aquarium


1. Massive electronic billboard and New Year's Eve landmark
2. Westbeth (artists' housing)
3. Hotel Riverview
4. A mixed-use building called the Archives
5. Castle Clinton National Monument
6. NY Public Library-Jefferson Market Branch
7. Gracie Mansion
8. Beekman Tower
9. NYU's science building


Some interesting stories behind the buildings in Question 4:

A. Gracie MansionThe official residence of New York City's mayor was originally a country estate built by Archibald Gracie in 1799 at a spot overlooking the East River at Hell Gate. This wealthy New York merchant acquired the land from the family of another successful merchant whose house on this same property was destroyed in 1776 at the start of the Revolutionary War. (George Washington, realizing the strategic importance of this spot, had a fort built here. Both the house and the fort were blown to bits by the British navy.) Gracie sold the property in 1832, and the city appropriated it 64 years later. Two museums called the mansion home before parks commissioner Robert Moses suggested its current use. Fiorello LaGuardia was the first mayor to reside there in 1942.

B. Massive electronic billboard and New Year's Eve landmark. Buried under acres of flashing neon and giant LED signboard displays is the former home of one of America's most respected newspapers. The New York Timesmoved to this intersection of Broadway and Seventh Avenue, originally called Longacre Square, in 1904. Appearing to squat in the middle of the street, the Times's new skyscraper office building not only changed the neighborhood, but soon altered the nomenclature of the area as well. Seven years later the newspaper vacated the building for new, larger quarters less than half a block west. The structure retained its old name until 1961 when the old facade was striped off, replaced by bland marble slabs and renamed the Allied Chemical Building. Now known as 1 Times Square, this mostly empty building mainly serves as an armature for hanging advertising. The structure is famous for its descending ball marking the new year and for its hip-hugging, animated electric sign called a Motogram, consisting of thousands of lamps that have been spelling out up-to-the minute news bulletins to passersby for more than seven decades.

C. NY Public Library-Jefferson Market BranchOriginally built as a courthouse for the Third Judicial District, this delightful Victorian conglomeration of revived architectural styles, rendered in brick and stone, rose from the center of a Greenwich Village market square in 1877 and became an instant landmark. Contributing to its prominence was its 150-foot clock tower and fire lookout, replacing at the same location an all-wood fire tower resembling a minaret of a mosque. Concerted efforts by local activists saved the building from destruction after the courts vacated the structure in 1945. Refurbished, it reopened its doors as a branch library in 1967.

D. The ArchivesOriginally built in 1899 as a US Government warehouse to store goods awaiting customs clearance, this 10-story block-long and block-wide hulk of a building later served as a gigantic attic for storing paperwork generated by Federal bureaucrats. It was later emptied and sold, finding new life in 1988 as a residential, commercial and retail property.

E. The WestbethNamed after the streets at whose junction it sits (West and Bethune), this former Bell Laboratory, run by Western Electric, can claim a long history of milestone technological developments, many of which involved innovations in sound recording and transmission. Included in the list are the microphone, talking motion pictures, hi-fidelity recording, stereophonic sound transmission, and the first wireless transatlantic telephone service. The principles of radar were discovered here, as well as pioneering work on the first digital electronic computer. The first long distance television picture via wire was received here from Washington D. C. in 1927. It was reportedly a fuzzy image of Felix the Cat. Early developments in color TV also took place here. And in their spare time these Bell Lab wizards were also busy inventing reliable telephone equipment.

Bell Labs vacated the Westbeth in 1966. It was later converted into housing and studio space for visual, literary and performing artists.

F. The Beekman TowerThis apartment building for single sorority women quickly became a New York City landmark. At 26 stories, it was the tallest building in that part of the city, and its pleasing design by John Mead Howells was widely admired as a quintessential art deco tower. Built by a society representing 20 sorority organizations, its original purpose was to provide what was perceived to be badly needed housing suitable for unmarried, professional women venturing into America's job market for the first time in large numbers. Although the need was recognized just after World War I, the facility was not completed until 1928. After its mission was overtaken by changing mores, the tower became the Beekman Tower Hotel. Rooms are now available for members of either gender.

G. Hotel RiverviewA stay here three quarters of a century ago would have meant a meal, a bed, a measure of proselytizing, and strictly no alcohol on the premises. Built by the American Seaman's Friends Society Institute in 1910, this Christian organization's shelter with its octagonal tower served as a refuge from the taverns, crime and prostitution of Manhattan's waterfront. Cargo warehouses still dot Manhattan's Hudson River shoreline, but the ships, merchant seamen and longshoremen have long since decamped for the container wharves of New Jersey.

H. NYU's science building was the horrific scene of one of New York City's worst fire disasters, the infamous Triangle Shirtwaist Fire of 1911. With most of the exits blocked by fire or padlocked by the factory owners, the 146 victims, mostly young immigrant seamstresses, died in the flames or leapt from the windows of the 7th through 10th floors where the blouse factory was located. The fire spurred long-delayed reforms in worker rights and safety. 

The Asch Building, as it was then called, survived the fire and was refitted. Real estate speculator and philanthropist Frederick Brown later bought the building and subsequently donated the structure to New York University in 1929. The Brown Building now houses NYU's science laboratories.

I. Castle Clinton National Monument. This sandstone fortress, originally called the South-west Battery, was built on a rocky island 200 feet off shore in 1811. It was one of five emplacements erected in the harbor to defend New York City and its port from attack by the British navy, the most powerful of its time. Although the British bombarded Baltimore in 1814 and burned the nation's new capital in the District of Columbia, they never attempted an assault on New York during the War of 1812.

In 1815, the battery was renamed Castle Clinton after DeWitt Clinton, a former New York City mayor and future Governor of New York. In 1823, it became property of the city and in succession served as a center for entertainment, theater and opera (1824-1855), an immigrant-processing center (1855-1890, a precursor of Ellis Island), and a city aquarium (1896-1941). Landfill dumped off the southern tip of Manhattan in the mid 1800s eventually closed the watery gap between the battery and the mainland. It was rescued from demolition and designated a national monument in 1946.