Chicago’s iconic water tanks are disappearing from the skyline

WGN Investigates

CHICAGO — From Bucktown to downtown, water tanks have dotted the Chicago skyline for decades. Once there were thousands standing, but now there are only about 120 left.

While originally put up as fire suppression systems, the tanks are now mostly empty. Maintenance costs and safety concerns have forced building owners to tear many of them down over the years. Ward Miller with Preservation Chicago sees the ones that remain as worth saving.

"These images that were so much a part of Chicago for generations are really fading fast," Miller said. “There were ordinances in place to protect them and that was repealed due to the liability with these tanks."

This story from 2006 delves into the history of the water tanks in Chicago

There was a push to help save the remaining water towers, but that changed in 2013, when one came crashing down in Lakeview. Ordinances were strengthened to make sure building owners were maintaining the tanks if they chose to keep them. The City now requires a critical exam be performed by a licensed structural engineer to make sure the tanks are safe about every two years. In most cases, building owners are choosing to demolish them instead of spending the dollars to keep them maintained.

Among the 10 cases of tanks that the City says are in dire need of repairs, most are complying. Nancy Schwab says she will spend $65,000 to restore her tank.

"It’s an important part of the building," Schwab said. "It was built in 1905 and it goes with the integrity and aesthetics of the building as well."

Northwest of her, the company James Layman works for purchased the old Lincoln Log factory in Humboldt Park. He says they're going to take the water tank down, because necessary repairs would cost the same amount as removing it.

Ray Ortiz describes says he may be the last person who knows how to maintain the tanks. While he’s not optimistic about their future, he says he’d love to see his life’s work continue.

"In ten years, I would say maybe there’s 80 left," Ortiz predicts.

While there's no comprehensive list of every water tank in Chicago, we'd like to document the ones that remain - but we need your help! If you spot a water tank, please snap a photo of it and share it with us by clicking the button below. Be sure to include the address of the tank and your name.