Tuesday, February 5, 2008

Mysterious Leak Provides a Hint of Lost Manhattan

Mysterious Leak Provides a Hint of Lost Manhattan

James Estrin/The New York Times
Dorothea R. Endicott behind the buildings she is renovating. Her basements dried up after the city plugged a leaking service line.

Published: February 5, 2008

Cities absorb history — all kinds of histories. Personal history, commercial history, political history, even geological history combine to form the fabric of the contemporary city.
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James Estrin/The New York Times
Mrs. Endicott’s town houses on West 141st Street.

The New York Times
Sometimes those overlapping histories are revealed in ways that provide a glimpse of the bygone city that lies beneath the one visible now. Such was the case in Harlem recently when a homeowner sought the source of a mysterious longtime water leak in her basement.

Dorothea R. Endicott, the former executive director of the New York Collegium, a Baroque period orchestra, was smitten long ago by the blend of history, style and culture in the Hamilton Heights section of Harlem. Finally, two years ago, she bought two derelict town houses on West 141st Street, a block from the Gothic entrance to City University, and half a block from Hamilton Grange, the last home of Alexander Hamilton.

Mrs. Endicott and her husband, Bradford, who live in Massachusetts, planned to create an elegant home along with a number of rental apartments.

There was one big problem — water in the basement. It was a constant trickle that sometimes grew into a stream that washed across the concrete floor and through the common wall before squeezing through the 24-inch-thick Manhattan schist foundation to flood into the neighboring alley. There, the water collected in such quantities that it flowed into the basement of the adjoining 60-unit apartment building and pooled near the furnace.

Rafael Correa, the apartment building’s superintendent, said the water has been running for the seven years he has been on the job, and undoubtedly a lot longer than that. “Some tenants have been here for 60 years, and they say there’s always been water coming through,” he said. Other neighbors on 141st Street said their basements have been wet for at least 30 years.

Andy Davis, a project manager for Certified Construction who has overseen the renovation of Mrs. Endicott’s houses for more than a year, suspected a leaky water main and called the city’s 311 help line in August. A city inspector showed up in October and told him the source of the water was not a water main but an underground stream, clearly shown on a 19th-century map.

One of the first things city engineers check when hunting leaks is the venerated Viele map, drawn in 1865 by Egbert L. Viele, a civil engineer. Think of it as a cartographic X-ray of New York City that shows marshes and surface streams that have been covered over by the modern city.

The area of the Viele map (davidrumsey.com/maps6128.html), when enlarged on the Web, shows a stream running through West 141st Street at roughly the spot where Mrs. Endicott’s buildings was built in 1905. But Mr. Davis had doubts.

He reasoned that the flow of water in such a stream would vary, depending on rain or snowmelt. The flowing water on 141st Street was constant. And when he dug up the building’s concrete floor in August, the trickle became a steady stream.

In October, the persistent Mr. Davis called 311 again and asked for the water to be tested. An inspector took a sample for analysis to determine whether it contained chlorine or other telltale chemicals that would identify it as city drinking water.

The results showed that the water in the basements was, in all likelihood, city water coming from a pretty big leak. But where? To track it, city workers shut down water service block by block. On Nov. 7, they traced the problem to a leaking service line going to a boarded-up house on West 140th Street, near Amsterdam Avenue, a block and a half from Mrs. Endicott’s houses.

Once that line was repaired, Mrs. Endicott’s basements quickly dried out. A visit to her houses in mid-January found no running water in either one. Mr. Correa said the water coming into his basement had slowed considerably. And Daryl M. Waters, a Broadway composer who owns a building on the west side of Mrs. Endicott’s house, said his basement also dried out after being wet for the 15 years he has owned it.

“I’m completely dry now,” he said. “It’s totally amazing.”

Mrs. Endicott is relieved to be finally moving ahead with her renovation, and the repair has eliminated one of Mr. Davis’s biggest headaches.

Though city water officials know that leaks exist in the 6,000 miles of city-owned water mains, James J. Roberts, the deputy commissioner for sewer and water operations of the city’s Department of Environmental Protection, said it is nearly impossible to find a leak until someone complains about it. The department regularly checks all its mains with sonar to detect the sound of uncontrolled leaks.

Last year, 159 leaks were uncovered that way. Fixing them saved an estimated 4.6 million gallons of water a day. But even that is a small amount compared with the 35 million gallons a day leaking out of an upstate aqueduct for the last 20 years.

In the case of West 141st Street, Mr. Roberts said that while it is possible that a pipe could leak continuously for 30 years, he was pretty sure that the long forgotten underground stream, out of sight and — until Mr. Davis called last summer — out of mind, had contributed to the problem.
Indeed, the Viele map shows a thin blue line running almost precisely from the location of the boarded-up building on West 140th Street, continuing northwest through the block and coming out just about precisely beneath Mrs. Endicott’s town houses.

“Maybe there’s an element of truth in a bunch of different perspectives,” Mr. Roberts said. “Some things are a lot clearer than others.”


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