Winslow Street Water Tanks
[Update: The 80-year-old tower No. 1 was dismantled in the summer of 2011.]
That 2,000-pound elephant in the middle of the living room that nobody talks about? There are two of them in Provincetown and they are called the Winslow Street Water Tanks, No. 1 and No. 2. Apart from the Pilgrim Monument itself, the tanks are the most prominent feature of the town’s skyline, but we always seem to elide over them, as if by ignoring their great bulk, we could wish them away. Of course, they play a critical role in the town’s well-being. And you could also argue that their presence keeps the town’s visible profile — appealingly and appropriately — on the side of the functional, rather than the quaintly picturesque. They also serve as a reminder how precious water is, even when it surrounds a community.
Provincetown’s drinking water comes principally from wellfields in what is known as the Pamet Lens of the Cape Cod Aquifer. After being treated with potassium hydroxide, sodium hypochlorite and a polyphosphate sequestrant, it is pumped along a 12-inch transmission main. Three storage tanks — also known as standpipes — are part of the system: Mount Gilboa in the east and these two, at what is officially known as 7 Captain Bertie’s Way. They act both as reservoirs (to supply water during the thirsty summer months) and as gravity pumps, providing the pressure necessary to move water throughout the system.
In the early 1890s, the municipal water system was created. Part of the land owned by Dr. Thomas Lothrop’s estate, west of Winslow Street, was taken as the site of the first standpipe. This structure, 100 feet tall and 28 feet in diameter, with a 600,000-gallon capacity, seems especially conspicuous in turn-of-the-century photo panoramas of the town. It stood until 1932, when it was demolished.
The second tower on this site — now known officially as No. 1 — was designed by Whitman & Howard of Boston and constructed in the space of about five months in 1931, in the midst of the Great Depression. Tank No. 1 is 115 feet tall, with a diameter of 42 feet and a capacity of 1.1 million gallons of water. From the very first, town officials worried about how they could make such a thing a bit less conspicuous. Their answer, The Advocate reported in 1932, was camouflage:
The top of it will be painted blue to melt into the sky and the lower part is to be so decorated as to resemble surrounding dunes. Then when the visitors arrive by train or boat their first glimpse of the perfect Provincetown skyline, so regally topped by the Pilgrim’s monument, will not be marred by the ungainly tank.
To judge from a photo of the painted standpipe, which appeared in the June 1936 issue of Popular Science, the result was very conspicuous, indeed. It looked like a 115-foot Stuart Davis. (Actually, The Advocate reported in 1978, George Elmer Browne may have had a hand in the camouflage scheme.)
The big tank — No. 2 — was constructed from 1977 to 1978. It is 108 feet tall, with a diameter of 78 feet and a capacity of 3.8 million gallons of water. Once again, the design was by the engineering firm Whitman & Howard. And once again, town officials agonized over the color. “Descriptions and drawings of rainbows, landscapes and geometric designs were sent by those who felt Provincetown’s artistic element should be represented,” The Advocate reported. The selectmen chose Northern Blue, though George Bryant, who was on the board at the time, held out for Canary Yellow. Of course, Provincetown stories never end neatly wrapped up. A month later, the exasperated selectmen learned that the contractor had picked a paint called Powder Blue. The original construction budget was $525,000 (nearly $1.8 million today). The tank was rehabilitated in 2005 and 2006 for $800,000.
When I was a child the remnants of the old brick foundation of the original standpipe was still visible at the site