Standing inside an empty water tower is sort of like catching a glance inside the teacher's lounge at school.
You passed the door a million times and knew it was probably boring inside, but its exclusivity lent all the mystique it needed -- and oh-my-gosh, they have their own soda machine.
No, there is no soda machine inside a water tower. As you'd expect, there is usually just water -- 1.5 million gallons, in this case. But Friday, Pennsylvania American Water invited a half-dozen folks into an emptied tower perched atop the old Mayview State Hospital grounds, offering a rare look inside the mammoth structure that holds your water until you turn on the tap.
And it is just as cool as you'd imagine.
"This is like a giant igloo," breathed state Rep. Jesse White, D-Cecil, dwarfed by the 37-foot-high dome above him.
"I was going to say it's like the Pantheon," whispered state Rep. Daniel Miller, D-Mt. Lebanon, referencing the ancient temple in Rome.
Neither was too far off. The two legislators stood on dropcloths near the narrow entrance hatch to the rotunda-like structure, which is 75 feet in diameter and runs more than 470 feet around the edge. The dome above was only a bit smaller than the one that hangs over their offices in the state capitol, with a teensy-tiny porthole at the top letting in a narrow shaft of sunlight.
If it hadn't been for the makeshift light rig hooked up nearby, it would have been too dark to see the tank's most surprising trait: It is painted stark white on the inside. Indeed, it still smelled like fresh paint, with crews only recently finishing their refurbishment of the decades-old tower.
The two water towers sit on a high hill above the former Mayview estate, from where they had supplied water to hospital residents since 1953. Originally a dusty blue -- they're now painted South Fayette green -- the storage structures fell out of use when the state hospital shut down in 2008.
A few years later, they caught the eye of Pennsylvania American Water. From the warmth of a visitors tent outside the tanks, project manager Scott Hilty explained that much of the low-lying South Hills fall under a "low service gradient" designation, meaning some 36,000 people are only one water main break away from seeing their water pressure take a temporary but serious hit.
"This now eases the rest of the system," colleague Dave Ward said.
The project cost $4 million and should wrap up by the end of January, adding 3 million gallons of capacity to the system. The two tanks are part of a larger $16.5 million effort to renovate 15 water storage facilities across Pennsylvania, the company said.
At the height of the renovations, workers methodically sandblasted every inch of the tanks' interior, wiping out grime that had built up for nearly two decades. Pennsylvania American Water spokeswoman Josephine Posti joked all the accumulated sand and grit made walking around inside the tank feel like a trip to the beach.
Not anymore. On Friday, the inside of the tank was clean enough to tempt a visitor to dump out the contents of his lunch box and eat straight from the floor. (Don't worry -- no one dared.)
A less fortunate finding of standing inside a large metal tank: Anything above a whisper throws back a walloping echo, amplifying a few voices into a chorus the Mormon Tabernacle Choir would envy.
As the group readied to leave the site, Dan Dernosek gave the twin tanks one last look. As chief of the Fairview Volunteer Fire Department in South Fayette, he's glad for the extra capacity, which he now can call upon when he needs it most.
"We have another 3 million gallons of water to use," he said.
Andrew McGill: firstname.lastname@example.org or 412-263-1497.