Sunday, August 21, 2011

The Tragic Story of the Dresbach Tank House: Better Demolition Than Degradation? (05)

1. Excerpt from Eastman B-4705, 1946
Some people seem pleased that the Dresbach Tank House has moved to a commercial establishment on a county road near Davis.  I am not.

To me, this move is another sad episode in a long series of degrading events. And that series adds up to a tragic, degradation story.

The Dresbach Tank House story reminds me of the King Kong story.  A creature minding its own business is captured, enslaved, and paraded in chains on a stage for the amusement of ticket-buying audiences.

Its story also reminds me of bears and similar mammals made to perform for audiences in circuses and on other stages. In this process, proud creatures are degraded.

Here is how a King-Kong/Dancing Bear degradation narrative applies to the Dresbach Tank House.

2. Excerpt from Eastman B-4706, 1946
Dignified Creation. The Tank House began life in the 1880s as a dignified structure behind the Dresbach Mansion. It had a flat roof (images 1 and 2) on which a round water tank sat. Because the tank supplied water to the second floor of the Mansion, the platform had to be at least a few feet higher than the home’s second floor.  The tank house and the tank together were therefore about as tall or taller than the Mansion. The “roof” or tank deck was constructed of heavy timbers to support the weight of the tank.

Our local historian of Dresbach matters, Valerie Vann, has counted structures on the earliest Sanborn maps of Davis and determined that in 1911 there were 19 residential tank houses or stands in a population of 120 dwellings. There were many fewer tank houses/stands than dwellings because they (with windmill--, or later gasoline--, powered pumps) were expensive to install and maintain and relatively few families could afford them. Tank houses were a sign of urban or at least town sophistication--meaning relative wealth and higher class standing. Signaling that the structure was not merely utilitarian and rural, the Dresbach Tank House was outfitted with an Italianate cornice that matched the Mansion and with four gothic medallions.

(Vann reports that originally it had no second story or stairs, and only a single door and window. The tank was probably accessed when necessary by a ladder, and the windmill to power the pump may have been mounted either alongside the tank or on a separate structure.)

Dignity Crisis. No matter how dignified and class-superior tank houses were, they became almost instantly obsolete in towns when mandatory city water systems were implemented. In Davis, that was 1919.

So here were these tank houses: Proud symbols of over-class home water delivery systems suddenly rendered useless. Almost all of them were soon torn down. They only survived at homes with odd ownership histories, like the Dresbach Mansion.

After being virtually frozen-in-time for decades, when the last resident member of the Hunt family finally died in 1973, the way was opened for rethinking the Dresbach Mansion property. In a complicated series of actions, the lot was split and the Mansion Square shopping complex seen there now was built.

Degradation: Stage One. As part of these changes, the tank house was relocated to the orange orchard next to the mansion. This move brought to light that the structure was rotten at the bottom, which was removed. In this way, it became a kind of stunted cripple (Image 3).

3. View after the historic orange grove has been cut down
Degradation: Stage Two. Over the 1970s-90s, there were several unsuccessful attempts to repurpose it to house a small business. These ill-considered “remodelings” damaged it even more. In the later 2000s, it was discovered that the City, which had owned it since 1994, had allowed it to rot in some serious ways (thus breaking its own preservation ordinances).

Degradation: Stage Three. Pressure to build on the land where it stood mounted in the later 2000s. Despite its now increasingly decrepit condition, it was moved to the other side of the Mansion in May, 2010. Structural studies made regarding that move brought to light yet more maladies and infirmities.

Degradation: Stage Four. And then there was perhaps the ultimate indignity of decapitating it--rendering its body asunder--before actually removing it from its home (image 4).

Degradation: The Final Stage?  City of Davis officials rid themselves of this battered, torn, and literally decapitated structure by giving it, essentially free, to a Disneyland-like farm characterizing itself as “rustic and quaint” that plans to paint it red and install it beside a recently “raised” building called “Grandpa’s Barn.”
4. Decapitated removal, August 5, 2011

So, it seems to me that a once proud and dignified urban tank house is in the process of being made a dancing bear in a circus, metaphorically speaking.

Years ago, I thought demolition was the building’s most dignified fate. I continue to think so.

Better demolition than degradation? 

Ironically, decapitation may be de facto demolition. Reassembly likely presents an insurmountable challenge that will lead to abandoning the project or to constructing an essentially new structure that uses only decorative remnants. Either way, the Dresbach Tank House would have at last been put to rest. JL

Valerie Vann reviewed this post in draft and made excellent suggestions for changes and additions that I have adopted without specific attribution. I thank her very much for her help.
DavisWiki. “Dresbach-Hunt-Boyer House.”

_________. “Tank House.”

Vann, Valerie. “Windmills, Tank Houses & Related in Davisville, 1888.” Davis Historical Society Davis History Website.

___________. “Windmills, Tank Houses & Related in 1911 Davis.” Davis Historical Society Davis History website.

____________. The Henry Stelling Family of Davisville: A Dresbach-Hunt-Boyer Mansion Family, Davis Historical Society Paper on Davis History Number 6.