At the corner of Sixth and Harrison streets in Northwest Berkeley, a bearded, bespectacled young man dressed head to toe in wool is waiting for me. Behind him, the first attraction on an exclusive tour of Berkeley’s last remaining water towers stretches toward the sky.
Aaron Goldstein, a 29-year-old South Berkeley architect, has spent much of the last two years peering over fences at backyard windmills. These two to three story towers, which pulled up water from a well at the tower’s base and stored it in a redwood tank, were once ubiquitous across the entire Bay Area, providing residents with their primary supply of residential water.
Replaced by municipal water sources in the 1920s, they have since been all but destroyed. For the 55 towers that he has found still standing in the East Bay — 14 of which are in Berkeley — Goldstein is their devoted historian.
Goldstein is gesturing to the tower behind us when a man carrying a brown takeout bag appears on the sidewalk. This, it turns out, is Craig Nagasawa, and it’s his house we’re lurking next to.
Goldstein introduces himself as a “self-appointed local historian” of backyard water towers. “No one asked me to do this,” he says with a smile. Then he offers to show Nagasawa a map of his water tower from 1903.
This kind of thing happens a lot, apparently. Goldstein will be leaning on a fence to get a better view of one tower or another; then the homeowner pops up. No one has ever been overtly hostile, but he was once intimidated by a German shepherd and its owner.
Other times, the random encounters have been the start of an ongoing correspondence bordering on friendship. Goldstein’s notes are filled with stories documenting meetings with tank house owners: “By chance met Paige and Lucas at Roses Taproom with Thea. Somehow Lucas mentioned where they live and I immediately knew it was the house in question,” one note reads.
In this case, Nagasawa, an artist and carpenter, deems us unassuming enough to open the gate to his backyard. There’s a lemon tree growing next to the tower, which is, according to Goldstein, the only one in the city that’s “the complete package.” The structure, the water tank and the windmill are all still intact.
That’s partly because Nagasawa has paid out of pocket to maintain the slice of history in his backyard. “I like the old aesthetic of it,” Nagasawa says. “Everybody told me, ‘Why don’t you just take it down?’ I hate to see it go away, but it’s getting increasingly hard to take care of.”
From a ‘veritable shape of ugliness’ to 90s chic
We say goodbye to Nagasawa and stride south on Sixth. Goldstein lectures, I scribble frantically in my notebook and try to avoid walking into a street sign.
“You have to imagine, 100 years ago, these were everywhere in Berkeley,” Goldstein begins. They weren’t behind every house, but certainly on every block. “It wasn’t just a thing that fancy people had,” he said. “Initially it was, but then it became more common and more affordable.”
With the turn of the century, the tank houses ushered in a new era of convenience, permitting everyday people to have running water on their farms and in their homes.
They worked like this: At the base of each tower is a well that reaches down into the aquifer. At the top of the tower, a windmill operates a pump rod that brings the groundwater up and deposits it into the tank itself. When you turned on the tap, the water ran from the tank through an underground pipe into the home’s plumbing system and into the sink or bathtub. People didn’t have indoor flush toilets then, leaving the ground water quality suspect.
When I ask why, exactly, he cares about the water towers, Goldstein explains that he is engaged in what he calls “architectural archeology.”
Hidden behind fences, the tank houses are vestiges of another time. His goal is to “reconstruct for myself and for other people a picture of what the built environment looked like and felt like, not very long ago.”
Goldstein shows me newspaper clippings he’s collected about the towers. A 1915 article in the Pacific Rural Press attributes the death of a farmer’s wife — the couple didn’t have a tank house — to “overwork” from carrying water to and from the house: “A water tank would have … saved the wife extra labor which made her succumb to the disease,” the clipping reads. In another, a writer calls for a tank house redesign, calling the existing towers “a veritable shape of ugliness.”
The tank houses were a recurring stage on which the dramas of early 20th century life played out, featuring heroic wives, villainous robbers and tragic deaths, all documented by old newspapers that Goldstein has collected.
In one story, “a mounted force of about fifteen masked men” attempted to rob a train heading East on the Central Pacific Railroad, holding multiple people captive in a tank house. They were unsuccessful.
In another, robbers raided a tank house that doubled as a storage space, leaving with “ten gallons of wine, 30 gallons of gasoline, a gallon of oil and a small rifle.”
Today, most of the tank houses are defunct, but a few are still functioning (one provides water for a sprinkler system) and others have been converted into homes or workspaces. A watchmaker in Alameda ran his shop out of a tank house. In Goldstein’s notes, I find mention of a drummer living inside one Oakland tank house: “Someone was playing drums inside so I didn’t go in. Definitely lived in and cared for,” his note reads.
Half a mile south on Sixth Street, we stop at a “workman’s Victorian,” which lacks the ornate detailing of some of the more elegant houses across the street. There’s no tank house here, but there used to be.
We walk a few blocks away to the Delaware Street Historic District, where we find the missing tower. It’s been turned into an upscale but almost windowless condominium. It looks immaculate, painted black with a bright white door, a rose bush to the left of the entrance. “I’ve seen a picture of the interior,” Goldstein says. “It’s very ’90s loft chic.”
The district itself feels like Disneyland, or maybe Seahaven Island from The Truman Show. In the 1960s, several residential areas in West Berkeley were slated to be demolished in a big manufacturing project. Local residents and historians saved the Victorians. Certain homes were relocated to the Delaware Street district, including the tank house.
As we walk east to our next destination, Goldstein tells me that, yes, he has given this four-mile tour before. That’s mostly to his friends, who call his “tank house hotline” with tips (there’s no hotline; it’s just Goldstein on his cell phone taking calls from his friends when they spot a water tower driving around).
“If it’s made of wood and held water, I want to know about it,” Goldstein says. The tours haven’t taken off yet. “The trouble is, it’s a lot of walking.”
A catalogue of towers
Goldstein’s preoccupation began with a water tower near his house on Ashby Avenue.
Out of work during the pandemic, Goldstein spent a lot of time just walking around Berkeley. On one of these walks, he became curious about the nearby tank house. Finding nothing online about urban tank houses (“no one studies these”), Goldstein dove in. “There’s nothing like unemployment to birth a research project,” he says, quoting the mid-century British folk singer A.L. Lloyd.
He has a few methods for finding the water towers.
First, he walks everywhere. Goldstein doesn’t drive and has mostly stopped biking. “I don’t know if it’s the feeling of my own mortality,” he says. He easily racks up 10 miles by foot on a typical day. The walks afford plenty of viewing opportunities into people’s backyards.
Then there’s what he calls “shooting from the hip, flying Google Earth” late at night, trying to spot “an anomaly, a bump, basically.”
Finally, he has the fire insurance maps, “which are, like, everything.”
He first used the maps when researching the history of his grandfather’s hat store in the Fillmore. (Goldstein also makes hats. He calls his hat business “Aaron’s Discount Hats Goodnight.”) Later, he realized the fire insurance maps held crucial information about the location of tank houses.
There was no set blueprint for how to build these, which is exactly what draws him to the tank houses. He likes “anonymous buildings,” constructed by everyday people, not by architects. He describes his research as giving “an academic seriousness to structures not designed by architects.”
Over 50 years, carpenters swapped advice with one another ranging from what lumber sizes worked best to what height the tank needed to be elevated at to achieve adequate water pressure. There’s a whole architectural category devoted to this kind of thing — “vernacular architecture.”
“To me, they’re as significant as a high status and recognized historic building,” Goldstein says. And he treats them as such, collecting piles of digital materials on tank houses all around Berkeley, Oakland and Alameda — the foundation for a book Goldstein plans to write.
A Cornell grad who recently received his official architect’s license and landed a part-time gig with a former professor, Goldstein wants his book — which will blend social history with architecture and ecology — to have appeal beyond academia. “I’d like people to actually read it,” he says.
He’s created architectural drawings of nearly every tank house he’s seen, rendering what the buildings might have looked like 100 years ago. He has a spreadsheet documenting each tank house he’s visited around the Bay Area, some multiple times, containing detailed notes on how he found the tank house, who owns it, the stories the owner told about it, its style and the style of its roof, etc.
Some cells contain basic information, while others lovingly document his excursions: “My legs were shaking uncontrollably by the time I got to the top,” he wrote after climbing a ladder to the top of one tank house last March. “No fall protection of any kind, hence a beautiful and uninterrupted view.”
An unorthodox preservationist
The tank house on Francisco St. is best accessed through the parking lot of the Berkeley Adult School. That’s because its owners have never responded to the pamphlets Goldstein has left on their front porch. So, he goes around back.
“If you own a home of architectural significance, you might expect people are going to be showing up. I feel like you have a responsibility to at least let them take a look,” Goldstein says.
To see the tank house, Goldstein, who is six feet tall, has to stand up on his tip toes. The fence obscures my view entirely. This one, he says sadly, has been partially collapsed for at least 20 years.
As we tour the remaining tank houses, our conversation meanders to his views on preservationism. Goldstein finds himself straddling two worlds: preservation and housing rights. “I think preservation is really important, and I also think that everyone should be housed,” Goldstein says. “And those things don’t have to be in conflict.”
Goldstein, who has worked on designing multiple affordable housing projects, describes himself as an “unorthodox preservationist.”
If he had his way, historic structures would be “preserved in amber” and he speaks wistfully of a “tank house museum.” But he knows that’s not always realistic. So if converting a tank house into a condo or a shed will keep it standing, then by all means, add a few windows, though he does wish that the changes would remain “in the spirit of the original.”
At one of our last stops — a dilapidated tank house tucked away in a quiet alleyway — a man cooking lunch cheerfully tells us the building attracts all sorts of wildlife, such as raccoons and opossums. Then he asks Goldstein whether the building is landmarked. “No, I don’t think it’s landmarked. But it should be,” he responds.
We see three more water towers before the tour ends, and as Goldstein takes off, he reminds me to invite the rest of Berkeley to join him on his historical tank house walking tour.
All interested parties should email email@example.com or contact Goldstein through his website.