Preservation Resource Center of New Orleans

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The Rise & Fall of THE NEW ORLEANS CISTERN BY: S. Frederick Starr and Jack Stewart WHAT STRUCTURE is most characteristic of New Orleans architecture? Most of us might cite shotgun houses, cast iron balconies, Italianate villas or townhouses with London-plan interiors. But if you'd put this question to Mark Twain, who visited in 1881, or just about anyone down to the start of the 20th century the answer would have been obvious, and by no means what architecture buffs swoon over: the utilitarian, usually ugly, but occa- sionally handsome, cistern.   For a century and a half after the city’s founding, cylindrical wooden cis- terns were everywhere. Most were elevated on plastered brick piers that rose three to six feet above the ground. Shotgun houses had them, factories had them, fashionable palazzos on Esplanade Avenue or in the Garden District had them, and public buildings had them. A couple of upscale residential ar- chitects strove to conceal them under the eaves, while in some public build- ings they were hidden on the roof. A few were disguised under barnlike sheds. Most, though, were unapologetically placed in plain sight right next to the building. They ranged from four to eight feet in diameter and from five to 15 or more feet in height. Because they were often elevated above 26  PRESERVATION IN PRINT • the ground on cylindrical plastered brick bases, their total height could reach even to the top of the second story, as was the case with the im- mense cisterns shown in several turn-of-the-20th century photo- graphs. Locals were so accustomed to these now seemingly weird and ubiquitous tanks that they could ignore them, but their imposing presence made a powerful impres- sion on visitors from elsewhere. Mark Twain, in his Life on the Mis- sissippi, lavished praise on the city’s grand private residences but then went on to acknowledge grudg- ingly that, “One even becomes reconciled to the cistern presently; this is a mighty cask, painted green, and sometimes a couple of stories high, which is propped against the house-corner on stilts. There is a mansion-and-brewery suggestion about the combination, which seems very incongruous at first.”   Why didn’t New Orleanians get water for drinking and cooking from wells, like people elsewhere? In fact, most New Orleans buildings had wells to tap the abundant ground water barely six feet below street level. But New Orleans well water was murky and foul tasting, and remains so today. Be- ginning with the early settlers, New Orleanians therefore looked to rain wa- ter to meet their domestic needs.   Cisterns collected rainwater from the roofs of New Orleans buildings. By the early 19th century, several local firms turned out inexpensive cypress shingles, which were used to roof all but the most expensive structures. Fancy homes and public buildings were roofed with slate that arrived in New Or- leans from Wales in the holds of cotton ships dead-heading back from Liv- erpool. Surrounding the roofs were wooden, and later, copper gutters, which channeled the water into pipes that led to the cisterns. When a cistern was full, an overflow pipe channeled excess water onto the lawn or into the street.   Because they collected water from the roofs, cisterns had to be very close to the main structure. It was this unavoidable feature that caused Twain to compare the houses-cum-cisterns to breweries. Cistern tanks were made exclusively from insect and rot-resistant, first-growth cypress wood. A rare MARCH 2018