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All Wet

Sep 13, 2012 10:42 AM | 2 comments

From the windows in the Howard Golden Reserve Room here in the Brooklyn Collection you can see a wall. The wall, running behind the library from Flatbush Avenue to Eastern Parkway, features, along its topmost portion, a pattern of waves done in shallow relief. 

As much as someone can wonder about a wall, I've wondered about this wall. Why a watery motif? Does it mean anything? Whether or not directly related to it, I had a hunch that this design had something to do with what once stood on the grounds now occupied by Mount Prospect Park: the Mount Prospect reservoir. 

Here you can see the water tower and gate house of the reservoir, situated just behind the under-construction, ill-fated Almirall wing of the library.

But even if it is a wholly coincidental design, at least these stony waves serve the purpose of opening the (forgive me) floodgates on this post about the reservoir, the watertower that once stood there, and the old Brooklyn water works.

This pre-water tower lithograph of the reservoir is plate no. 51 in the 1867 book Brooklyn Water Works and Sewers: a Descriptive Memoir. The report, written by James P. Kirkwood, Chief Engineer, covers every aspect of the water works: supply ponds, conduits, pump-wells and engine houses, force mains, pipe mains, distribution pipes, and the two major reservoirs: the Ridgewood reservoir and the Prospect Hill (or Mount Prospect) reservoir. With 59 illustrations, this book, among others in our collection, is a great resource for learning about Brooklyn's early water works. Just by looking at the illustration above, you can see how the streets in this area have changed. If you can make it out, the reservoir is here bounded by: Flatbush, Underhill, Sackett, Grand, and President. Here's a map from 1855 that will give you a better idea of how the site was laid out:

Still listed here as Mount Prospect Square, the site would, in short order, become the Mount Prospect reservoir; the water works were commenced on the 31st of July, 1856 and water was let into the city on December 15th, 1858. As one Eagle article from 1867 put it, the Mount Prospect reservoir was really more a part of the distribution apparatus of the water works, whereas the Ridgewood reservoir, with a capacity of 167,000,000 gallons, served as the real water storehouse. But at a height above mean high tide some 28' higher than that of the Ridgewood reservoir, the Mount Prospect reservoir played a vital role in supplying water to those parts of the city, principally south of Atlantic Street (now Atlantic Avenue), situated higher than the Ridgewood reservoir. 


But even though Mount Prospect reservoir was situated on the highest piece of land in that portion of the city, it wasn't high enough for some groups of people: insurance companies, real estate agents, and firemen all wanted increased water pressure in the area in order to boost home prices and to aid in the prevention of fires. And so, in 1891, construction began on a pink granite Gothic tower designed by architects Henry W. Thayer and William J. Wallace.

Here in this illustration from a September 3, 1892 edition of Scientific American we can see Brooklyn's water-loving public out for an inspection of the newly completed water tower. Eight years later, this same publication would feature an article by George C. Whipple, biologist and director of the the brand new laboratory at Mount Prospect reservoir.

In his article Whipple goes to great lengths describing the equipment in place at the laboratory and the methods by which the water was analysed. If you're into Mahler bomb calorimeters and bacteriological examinations, then you just hit pay dirt! For the rest of us, it's nice to see some interior shots of the reservoir's lab.

But as always happens, things change. With the city expanding, new and larger sources of water -- Catskill water, to be precise -- were sought, making structures like the Mount Prospect water tower and reservoir obsolete.

And sad to say (because it was such a pretty tower), but we at the library were the ones who dealt the mortal blow to Thayer & Wallace's landmark.

Commissioner John J. Dietz of the Department of Water Supply concluded that the excavations undertaken to build the library would undermine the foundation of the tower and so, for safety's sake, and since the tower was so little used, it would have to be demolished. The wrecking company in charge of tearing it down announced in the Eagle that the Connecticut pink granite used to build the tower would be made freely available to anyone who wanted it. So I wonder...we have a piece of the old Jersey prison any of you out there have a piece of the old water tower?


9/25/2012 10:52:42 AM #

What is the date the tower was demolished?

Amy Peck

9/25/2012 11:51:37 AM #

hi Amy,

The tower came down in the winter of 1930. An article appeared in the Eagle on January 22nd of that year detailing the beginning of demolition and stating that the tower would be completely gone in "two weeks." So it's safe to assume that by the end of the first week of February 1930 the water tower at Mount Prospect reservoir was ancient history.