Preservation Magazine, Fall 2017

An Old Water Tank Creates an Acoustic Phenomenon in Rural Colorado


photo by: Julia Davis

The TANK Center for Sonic Arts opened in June 2016.

Bruce Odland took a leap of faith when he climbed onto the back of a muddy off-road vehicle with two complete strangers in Rangely, Colorado, in 1976. Odland, a sound artist, was in town recording audio for an art installation, and these men, local oil workers, promised him something amazing.

“I was frightened out of my wits,” he says, recalling how they careened through northeastern Colorado’s desolate high-desert landscape and arrived at an empty, 60-foot-tall water tank. At the oil workers’ urging, he crawled inside the structure through a small opening. Then they began pounding on the outside with rocks and boards.

“I’d never heard anything like it,” Odland says. “I’d never heard a sound last that long, with these dizzyingly beautiful reverberation effects going all over the place. My eyes were spinning around in my head, and my ears got huge.”

For the next several decades, Odland and his musician friends returned to the tank often. They didn’t know anything about its history—such as the fact that it was constructed between 1937 and 1941 as a railroad company’s water-treatment facility, and how a utility company moved it to Rangely in the mid-1960s to use as part of a fire-suppression system. That plan never materialized. When Odland found the tank, it had been disused for years, save for the occasional late-night party.

“Back then, we didn’t know who owned the place, nor did we particularly care,” he says. “We just knew what it sounded like.”

When the tank’s owner at the time considered selling it for scrap metal in 2012, Odland and his friends formed a coalition called Friends of the Tank. “We had this very simple impulse to save the tank,” says Odland, who now lives in New York. “We had no idea what we were doing. We knew nothing about certificates of occupancy or change-of-use permits. We just knew it’s the best-sounding space, and we had to save it. It was simple.”

Friends of the Tank launched two Kickstarter campaigns to buy the tank and open it to the public, raising more than $100,000. Professionals and volunteers from across the country pitched in to build a road to the tank, cut a proper door into it, engineer a ventilation system to allow for better airflow without changing the acoustics, install microphones and recording equipment, and build a fully equipped recording studio on the lot.

The site opened in June 2016 as The TANK Center for Sonic Arts, hosting regular performances, workshops, gatherings, and field trips. It’s also available to rent for recording sessions. This past June, The TANK received Colorado Preservation’s first-ever Preservation Edge Award, which recognizes a creative approach to preserving historical places.

“Normally people save things for visual reasons,” Odland says. “This was saving something for acoustic reasons. The tank was saved because it sounds good.”

Lauren Walser served as the Los Angeles-based field editor of Preservation magazine. She enjoys writing and thinking about art, architecture, and public space, and hopes to one day restore her very own Arts and Crafts-style bungalow.

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