The Backstory Behind Steel House Lofts' Artful Water Tank

Jun 13, 2016

You may have noticed the unusual structure perched on top of some residential lofts on South Flores here in San Antonio.  The 30-feet tall, conical-roofed shape is just like the steel water tanks that used to be there. Except the one on the Steel House Lofts isn't made of steel, doesn't hold water and is wildly colorful.

Dennis McDaniel owns the Lofts and explains that the historic structure was built for a very different purpose than as lofts. "The Peden Iron and Steel Building was built in 1913, to warehouse, hold up iron and steel, so the bones are pretty strong here."

A hundred years ago, a much plainer water tank there delivered water to Peden Iron and Steel, a building designed by one of the state's most famous architects: Atlee B. Ayers.

"He was the state architect of Texas. He built a number of notable buildings. He built the Tower Life building. He built a number of homes in King William."

Peden played a real role in building the San Antonio we now know, and McDaniel explains how. A rail spur used to parallel the south side of the structure.

"And so what they would do is bring big iron and steel in on the rail cars and drag it across the floor, cut it up, weld it together into building components and then load those on the truck docks on the north side and take them to building sites all over Central Texas for a few generations."

Peden closed though by 1950, and the building was used for warehousing until finally it became vacant. McDaniel bought it in 2006 to create Steel House Lofts.

"The tank was long gone, but we found an old rendering, went to the historic design and review commission. We said we want to replace this water tank, and after a little discussion, they agreed."

But how exactly do you build a water tank from scratch? Dennis and his wife, Jill, contacted Ion Art in Austin, which specializes in neon, metal structures and stained glass. Owner Sharon Keshishian designed a tower that would mimic the original, and gave McDaniel renderings to be approved by the city's Historic Design and Review Committee. But then Keshishian had an idea: What about stained glass?

"We thought that would look really nice up on top of the building in the sunlight."

Research showed glass wouldn't be practical there, so she created a design using colored vinyl panels that gave a stained glass look. The Historic Design and Review Committee approved it.

"And then we thought, 'Well gosh, that's nice in the day but what about at night?'"

With that in mind,  Ion Art designed a system featuring 384 programmable LED lights for the tank's inside so that it would take on a new, animated life at night.

"They can control it with their smart phone," Keshishian explained. "Actually, he can stand down in the parking lot and change the program on the tower."

"We can make that thing dance. I mean it's really cool!" McDaniel laughed. "From strobes to spinning around, to flashing colors. And the LED lights were able to change the color of the panels, depending on the color of light that shined on that acrylic panel."

They completed the project and animated its lights for the first time in 2012, something McDaniel remembers vividly.

"Oh gosh, the night when we first turned it on I was up on the roof 'til 2 a.m. with a computer expert who was programming it. It was in December and it was really cold!" 

It's a striking view at night and can be seen from miles away. Its creator, Keshishian, thinks other cities could learn something from this San Antonio re-interpretation.    

"Everything's getting in a lot of cities so monochromatic and so the same that it's nice when you can do something that kind of stands out a little."

So does putting a brightly-colored vinyl and steel water tank with animated nighttime lighting really honor the building's history? McDaniel gives an enthusiastic yes. 

"That's a really interesting question because do you want to save something that's dead or do you want to bring life to it? We brought new life to this place. One hundred-plus people live here. There's a restaurant out front, there's activity. It's a beacon; that's what people have told us."

The San Antonio Conservation Society must agree because in 2014 they gave the Steel House Lofts an Historic Preservation Award. Perhaps the water tank's atypical tip of the hat to history was a factor.

Find more on the Steel House Lofts history here