Soon after moving to Santa Rosa, California, in 2007 I became interested in those odd, often ramshackle three-story towers I sometimes saw on my bike rides around the area. The first owner I talked to called her tower a tankhouse and told me how it worked. I went to the library to learn more about them, only to find that there were no books on the subject. Since then I've scoured what little literature I could find in newspaper and journal articles, spent many hours in archives, and many more in traveling around northern California (from the San Francisco Bay Area east and northward) to photograph tankhouses and interview their owners. At this writing (13 August 2013) my tankhouse database includes images and information for 520 tankhouses, most of them in just 14 of California's 58 counties.
In June, 2011, I published a book about them under the Barn Owl Press imprint. (The book, called TANKHOUSE: California's Redwood Water Towers from a Bygone Era, is the result of that research (see https://sites.google.com/site/thebarnowlpresspage/). Since then I've been talking to more tankhouse owners, taking more pictures and learning more about them. Here are some stories I wish I could have included in the book. In case you've visited this site before, I've put them in reverse chronological order, most recent first.
[Intermission: I broke my neck in a bicycle accident last fall. Recovery has been slow.]
19 March 2014
A friend showed me a catalog from the Woodin & Little company in San Francisco, dated 1887.
The catalog listed windmills as well as many other machines, implements and devices, including redwood water tanks.
As you would expect, the tanks are of the old type with tapered staves tightened by steel bands. What you may not expect are the prices, listed in gold!
Everything else in the catalog is priced in currency. Why are the redwood tanks priced in gold? The owner believes it is because the company had to pay in gold for the redwood, which came from up the coast, where folks didn't trust paper money or banks, which were frequently robbed. Makes sense to me.
18 March 2014
Last June I photographed an interesting tankhouse in poor condition on a property that was on the market, with a very run-down house and barn and overgrown with brambles, poison oak and other trees and bushes.
Note the rickety stairs to what had once been a bedroom on the second floor.
At some time in the past the bedroom's ceiling and the tank above, or the roof, had apparently leaked.
The ground floor had what looked like the doors to a two-car garage, maybe wide enough for a couple of Model T Fords, but not deep enough for a modern car.
Last month I visited the place again, as a guest of the new owner. He had cleared much of the landscape, completely modernized the house and had begun to renovate the tankhouse as guest quarters. In the “garage” were a new concrete floor with pipes embedded for heating, plumbing for a bedroom and bath in the old tankroom, and a ladder to the second floor. Much of the siding had to be replaced (pink color is primer), the outside stairway was gone, to be replaced by interior access to the second and third floors. The third floor would have windows on all four sides, plus a small balcony where the windmill was once supported.
Upside down on the ground floor now is the cast iron bathtub destined for the third floor. It is of the period.
6 June 2013
Two different recent events had one thing in common: old pictures.
First, the owner of a tankhouse I had photographed when no one was home wrote to say she enjoyed the book, which illustrates the tankhouse on property which had been part of the farm where she grew up:
Her nephew, who owns the property, says the little “dog house” covers the top of the well, and the electric pump is inside it. The concrete pad on which it sits has "1931" written into the wet concrete with a nail.
And second, we took a one-day tankhouse tour from Merced to Gustine and photographed 19 of them, including a tankhouse that had once been attached to a house (a not uncommon feature in this area). The house had burned down, but the tankhouse was saved. The walls are partly charred where the house was attached:
The owner showed me a picture his father had painted in the 1940s, showing the tankhouse with the attached house, and his 1941 Ford:
On the same trip we saw several other tankhouses connected to dwellings, for example:
Tankhouse embedded in house
And we found twin tankhouses next door to one another, both built in 1890. The owner of the one with the windmill asked if I could advise him on restoring it (I couldn't), and showed me another windmill across the road. It was on its metal tower which was lying on the ground, but the windmill seemed to be in pretty good condition. He hoped to acquire it.
The other twin lacks its windmill but is in better condition. The owner told us the property is for sale, with house, tankhouse and 17 acres (if you're interested, I can put you in touch with him)
1 January 2013
A fellow tankhouse devotee (he lives in a tankhouse himself) has developed a Google map listing Nothern California tankhouses he has seen and showing their locations. At this writing the list is up to almost 100 tankhouses and counting. He tells me he has made his website public and asks me to say he bears sole responsibility for its contents. Take a look:
11 December 2012
As you know if you've read the book, I've seen barn owls in quite a few tankhouses, and there's a whole chapter recounting a close encounter with them. If you skip back to 10 September 2011, below, you'll find a tankhouse owner whose webcams monitor the pair of breeding owls that make their nest on the cover of the tank. And of course TANKHOUSE is published by Barn Owl Press. So I thought you should see a very nice video I just received (http://www.wimp.com/catowl/) in which a barn owl and a black cat enjoy each other's company.
31 October 2012
As mentioned below, I've been leading tours for fellow residents of my community to see tankhouses in our area. We always stop at the tankhouse on page 87 in TANKHOUSE, but I had never met the owner. This time, as we were admiring the whimsically decorated tankhouse surrounded by many curious and ingeniously crafted ornaments, assembled from steel parts of machines and other mechanical devices, he came up to our group, struck up a conversation and was happy to answer our questions. He said he had designed and built the tankhouse himself (it is not an old one, as I had thought, and never had a tank or windmill). He made all the ornaments as well, in his spare time. He enjoys creating these very imaginative compositions and says what gives him the greatest pleasure is "watching it happen."
When he told us there had been an article about tankhouses in our local newspaper, and that there was a book about them too, I introduced myself and we exchanged cards. I hope to get better acquainted with him.
19 August 2012
Thanks to the internet I found another unpublished Masters Thesis on tankhouses, and thanks to the miracle of Interlibrary Loans I was able to borrow a Xerox copy of the original double-spaced typewritten document with drawings and photographs, in library binding: Katie W. Thorsheim, Domestic Tankhouses in the Rogue Valley: Technology in Paradise, Southern Oregon State College, Ashland, 1991. She produced an inventory of 53 tankhouses, interviewing their owners or neighbors whenever possible to gather information about their history and the families that built and used them. Gold was discovered in the area in the 1870s, and the earliest tankhouse listed was built in 1878. There followed a period when much land was developed as the orchards for which the valley has long been famous. Since wind in the valley was unreliable, some early tankhouses were kept filled with hand pumps, and windmills were supplemented or replaced by mechanical pumps as soon as these became available. Thorsheim describes and illustrates five types of tankhouse, including five examples with a simple gable roof instead of the typical hip roof.
During this period I led three three-hour tours for residents of my retirement community to see 18 tankhouses in the area where I often ride my bike, southeast of Santa Rosa. One of the highlights of the tour is a ranch with a large house, barn and tankhouse (now converted to guest quarters) dating back to 1890 or before, when Mary Ellen Pleasant, an important figure in 19th-century San Francisco, bought the property.
Balcony overlooks valley to the west
Born a slave around 1816 in Louisiana, she was transported as a teenager to Nantucket via the underground railway and was indentured to a family active in the abolitionist cause. She worked off her indenture in the family store and became acquainted with many prominent abolitionists. A strikingly beautiful mulatto woman, she arrived in San Francisco in 1852, passed at first as white and established herself as a sought-after caterer in San Francisco society, and began to invest on the basis of information she gleaned from her contacts. She soon joined forces with a young banker, Thomas Bell, who became her silent investment partner. She also established various houses providing entertainment for gentlemen, where she continued to acquire information which brought her further profits. An aura of mystery surrounded her: known as the Voodoo Queen of San Francisco, she claimed to be the daughter of a voodoo priestess and a Virginia governor's son. An outspoken advocate for civil rights, she filed a series of lawsuits opposing discrimination against blacks, most of which she won. At the time she and Bell bought the property in the Valley of the Moon, she and Bell were said to be worth $30 million. Eventually she lost her wealth in a series of scandals and lawsuits, dying in poverty in 1904.
27 March 2012
That night I participated in a book-talk/signing and led off with TANKHOUSE. One listener asked how people use their tankhouses now that they aren't used to supply water anymore. I mentioned workshops, guest quarters and storage space. Another author began by saying, "Before I begin, I want to add another use for a tankhouse. When we bought our place back in the '80s it had an old tankhouse on it, and it had been turned into a three-story, hydroponic pot farm!"
He offered to show it to me and lend me some pictures he had taken when he was rehabilitating it (after removing the cannabis sativa plantation). It was an ingenious plan, with an indoor stairway connecting the first floor of the guesthouse to the second and third floors of the tankhouse (the first floor became a workshop with its own entrance).
As it was... After repairs, a stairway connected guesthouse to the 2nd floor...
23 January 2012
My wife Amy was reading the Wall Street Journal a few days ago when she noticed a short article with the headline "A 19th Century Victorian, With a View" and a photograph of a big, modernized house, dating to 1882 according to the owners, for sale in Petaluma. There was no tankhouse in the photo, but she read on: "Includes a treehouse in an old walnut tree, a three-story octagonal water tower..."! We went to see it, and here is what we found:
A rare octagonal tankhouse, refurbished for contemporary use.
A few days later a friendly agent met me with the keys and let me explore the interior of the tankhouse. A staircase, probably original, goes up along the interior walls of the first floor to the second floor, where there is plumbing for a bathroom but no bathroom fixtures. I reached the third floor by climbing redwood rungs nailed to studs, through a small opening in the third floor. I had assumed that the tank had once been on top of the existing structure, but I was wrong: the third story had been the tankroom, with the heavy joists on 12" centers to support the weight of the tank under the floor of the third story, not under the roof. The nails used in the original construction are the old square (cut) iron nails (see TANKHOUSE, p. 112); the modern features -- double-sash windows, rebuilt doorway -- were built using modern round steel nails.
The tankhouse is now just on the fence line separating the old house from its new neighbor to the west.. The agent, whose children used to play with the children of the owners of the tankhouse, remembered that the property was subdivided around 1979-1980. The old carriage house had been about where the modern house next door now stands, and the tankhouse was moved closer to the old house from its original location on the property at that time. It was later refurbished by the new owners.
9 January 2012
Another tankhouse enthusiast sent me directions to this very interesting tankhouse conversion in Marin County. Nobody was home when I arrived, but I took this photo from the road:
If you have information about it I'd like to hear from you.
28 December 2011
An author whose wife gave him TANKHOUSE for Christmas writes to me about his own new book, just published: "The novel is called Teller, and it’s a mystery set in present-day Sonoma County [California]. The main character, Charlie Teller, lives in a converted tankhouse on an imaginary estate in the hills above Kenwood. Until I saw your book recently, I did not know much about the structures, even that they are called tankhouses, not water towers. But I have long admired the structures since I moved to the county 25 years ago. I always imagined having a study on top of some of the structures, so when I wrote this novel, I put the narrator in one.
"The tankhouse plays a role in several scenes, and I described an imagined interior and balcony. Chapter 4 begins: “I lived that year on top of a wooden tower in an area east of Santa Rosa known as the Valley of the Moon.”
The book is ingeniously plotted and well written. For more information, see http://frederickweisel.com/.
14 December 2011
The North Bay Bohemian ran a nice article about tankhouses and me (the illustration, an odd choice, is a tankhouse look-alike built 20 years ago to cover a big steel water tank about 25 feet tall): http://www.bohemian.com/northbay/music-arts-and-culture/Section?oid=2124177
1 December 2011
A fascinating and worthwhile project was organized at the Patrick Ranch in Chico, which has a beautiful tankhouse of a rare type on the property. With state sponsorship, the Patrick Ranch Museum Water Tower Tank House Project conducted a group of painters and photographers on expeditions to paint and photograph tankhouses in northern California. The resulting paintings and photographs were shown in a juried exhibition in 2012, and some were included in a tankhouse calendar -- what a fine idea!
8 November 2011
The following message, from a man in Montana, reveals the ingenuity, persistence and dedication it sometimes takes to restore an old tankhouse to usable condition.
My wife and I had the pleasure of fully restoring a three story tank house at our former home [in Sonoma County, California]. When I purchased the property in 1984, the real estate ad said "handyman's delight", and the photograph showed both the house and water tower leaning towards each other! We spent 20 years remodeling the 1909 farmstead into a real jewel, and the restoration of the WT was the highlight.
The first phase involved renting a commercial shoring system, a heavy duty scaffold in effect, for lifting up the entire tank house by the inside second-floor floor joists. The procedure allowed us to level the structure with temporary steel I-beams, pour a concrete perimeter foundation, and repair several rotten timbers where they had encountered the ground. Of significant concern during those several days was the issue of earthquakes as the pedestal strategy for this phase would not have withstood any seismic challenges!
The third story had a redwood tank, the bottom of which had rotted from the years of accumulated barn owl "pellets". When I dismantled the tank, I noticed "Korbel Bros." emblazoned on several of the boards and learned that the Korbel Brothers winery was in the lumber business prior to brandy and champagne! The roof of my tank house had been neglected so the sizable 4 x 12 floor joists were dry rotted in places and not structurally sound.
My intention from the beginning was to make the top floor a habitable space. The idea occurred to me that if I was to replace the floor joists, I could extend them past the perimeter of the top floor walls and effectively create a deck. I ended up installing 16' long 2 x 12s that afforded me a 4' x 12' widows walk deck. I should say that I completely disassembled the top floor before rebuilding, using the salvaged old growth redwood wall boards in the process.
A quick note of the issue of upper floor access. I had considered a small spiral staircase to go from the second to third floor, but it would've displaced too much usable space on the second floor. An anonymous inquiry to the County Bldg dept. yielded the requirement that one would need to erect an exterior staircase to comply with max rise/ run stair restrictions. Desecrating the aesthetic of the exterior was out of the question so I chose the library ladder option. A railing on one side of the treads afforded safe access to the top floor.
Over the years the third floor deck became the setting for many star-watching evenings as well as the annual 4th of July fireworks extravaganza. The landscape is fairly flat so the elevated perch gave us vast viewing of the nearby municipal fireworks celebrations.
A few days ago I visited this tankhouse and took some pictures.
The former tankroom The library ladder, bolted in place
24 October 2011
Photo before the orange trees were
cut down, showing one of the
The handsome and historic tankhouse at the Dresbach Hunt-Boyer mansion in downtown Davis (see page 12 of TANKHOUSE) was moved years ago from its original location well behind the mansion when the land was sold for commercial development to a place beside the mansion facing the street. It was moved again in 2010 to a smaller space on the other side of the mansion after the Davis City Council made the land it occupied available for construction a coffee house. On August 5th of this year it vanished entirely from the property, after the Council sold it for $11 to the owners of Impossible Acres, a farm about two miles west of Davis. After putting it back together (it had to be cut in half for the move) the new owners planned to paint it red to match the barn, and eventually put a tank on top again.
22 October 2011
The oldest tankhouse?
Maybe. A horse named Rattler was California's champion trotter 153 years ago.
When I visited them after the book was published they told me some of the history of the place. Both their families date back to the early days of California statehood, and her ancestors had bought the place in 1867 from a Mr. F. Werner, who had established a ranch there in the early 1850s and raised trotting horses.
His large barn is still standing. The entire frame, with mortise-and-tenon joints secured with dowels, was built from pre-cut douglas fir parts shipped around Cape Horn, assembled on site, and covered with siding of vertical California redwood planks. The tankhouse, also still standing, was built entirely of redwood. Also probably build of redwood was Mr. Werner's house, which once stood between the tankhouse and the road but no longer exists.
The owners have researched the history of the place, and have posted copies of two 19th-century pages on an inside wall of the barn. As attested by the illustration below, a horse named Rattler (owned by Mr. Werner) was the state's champion Trotter in 1858.
Rattler won the state championship again in 1859. He and another Trotter named Trustee were offered at stud in 1860 by Mr. Werner:
The city of Davis was named for Jerome C. Davis (http://daviswiki.org/Jerome_C._Davis), the owner of the ranch mentioned in the first paragraph of the sheet above. The location of the tankhouse and barn discussed in this article corresponds to the location given for F. Werner's ranch on Putah Creek. The owner told me that the steel rings around the tank, which were still in the tankroom, were the old type, steel bands, and during my visit I noted that nails of the old square (cut) type were used to fasten the siding to the tankhouse. Both features indicate that it was almost certainly built some time in the 19th century. In all probability it was built at the same time as the barn, some time before 1858. If so it is the oldest existing tankhouse I know of.
20 September 2011
I've learned that the pipes I've seen sticking out a couple of feet from near the top of a few tankrooms are probably not stubs of filler pipes that were cut away, but overflow pipes to let excess water run out the side of the tank and fall to the ground instead of overflowing, running down inside the tankhouse and causing rot.
10 September 2011
A friend who owns one of the tankhouses illustrated in the book told me about another one not far way where a house-sale was going on.
This is a working tankhouse (with an electric pump instead of a
windmill). The gauge shows the tank is almost full.
We met there and I showed the owner the book. He saw the pictures of owls in Chapter 4 and said, "These are nice! -- want to see mine?" He said owls had been living in his tankhouse and raising young ones ever since the family bought the place 15 years ago. The owls live under the roof on the lid of the redwood tank in the tankroom. They go in and out through the wide gap between the roof and the walls.
The tank lid is covered with a tarp in this picture.
He had mounted four surveillance cameras to monitor the owls' activities. On the second floor, below the tankroom, he had a monitor with a screen showing the feed from each camera:
Top left, two owls. Top right, male owl on edge of lid.
Bottom left, outside. Bottom right, male owl.
He can watch the owls in real time on the monitor or search the tape and replay or freeze the action.
These images are pictures of the monitor screen. These frozen images were made at night. Unfortunately the tapes can only be run using the camera company's proprietary software, so I'm unable to show a video.
3 September 2011
I had interviewed the owners or residents of most of the tankhouses illustrated and described in the book, but I was unable to meet a few whose tankhouses were so interesting that I photographed them from the road. The tankhouse shown below is one of those. The gate to the property was locked, the house was unoccupied and there was a realtor's For Sale sign on the fence.
A Sonoma County tankhouse
An email message about this tankhouse:
Dear Mr. Cooper,
Today while at Copperfield Books in Sebastopol, I came across your book Tankhouse. I was raised on a farm in Santa Rosa with a tankhouse that I have very special memories of and have always had a special place in my heart for them. As I was looking through the book with a secret hope that I would see a long-ago picture of ours or my grandmother's in Berkeley, I came upon a picture that I am very sure must be ours in its current ruined state. My heart skipped a beat and filled with emotion as I stared at it and thought "could it really be?" Do you know where the picture Plate 48 on page 52 of your book was taken? If it is indeed ours, I have pictures from the 1950's and 60's of it. I don't know if I have any from its glory days with its white walls and red tank, but I know I have some that show it. Thank you so much for putting this wonderful book together. I look forward to hearing from you.
I wrote back giving the address of the tankhouse. She replied:
I knew it.....I am fighting back the tears. I grew up at [street address]. It was a beautiful farm that my Italian immigrant parents nurtured and loved. They moved there in 1931, shortly after they were married. My dad died in 1959, and my mom had a difficult time keeping it up. I was only 8 years old and my brother was 13 when my dad died.....we tried to help but could not really manage a 16-acre farm. The tank house started to fall into disrepair. By the time she sold our home in 1972, time had already begun to take its toll. Some recollections that immediately come to mind:
Thank you for including our tank house in your book. I will treasure it always. About once a year I drive by "the ranch" as we called it. The last time was not too soon after you took the picture. The gate was locked and there was a for sale sign. I stood by the gate and cried, as I always do. I am glad neither of my parents lived to see their beloved home in such ruin. It is heartbreaking for me.
Please let me know how and when to get copies of my pictures to you. And, again, thank you.
We got together and she let me scan some wonderful old family pictures:
West side of the tankhouse circa 1931, when her parents moved to the property. (Note the neighbors' water tower and windmill in the distance.)
This was a chicken ranch, with cows for milk, butter and cheese, and a few pigs for salami. By the late 30's her father had added two rooms on each side of the tankhouse, which became the center of their working life. Left front, tool room. Right front, garage. Left rear, egg room. Right rear, winery (her father bought grapes from a friend)
Her father painted the tankhouse white and the redwood tank red, and he finished the second floor, adding a window.
The expansions on the ground floor extended to the rear as well as to the sides.
Her family was part of a large group of Italian families and friends. They helped each other, worked together, and enjoyed each other's company.
They worked hard, but they knew how to enjoy life. They enjoyed their friends, their food, their wine and their music.
More later. Questions?
Thanks for your visit.
Tom Cooper (TankhouseTom@gmail.com)