As the only surviving watchtower of the original thirteen dotting Manhattan, we have been paying particular attention to the much anticipated renovation of the Harlem Fire Watchtower. Built between 1855 and 1857, it was the only way to spot fires and sound an alert until electric telegraphs were installed in 1878. The watchtower is located at the highest part of the Acropolis in the center of Marcus Garvey Park, which was rebuilt as part of the WPA jobs program. The cast iron structure was built by Julius H. Kroehl and designed by James Bogardus at a cost of $2,300. The bell inside weights 10,000 pounds alone .
Age and weather have taken their toll, bringing together a community effort to raise the funds for a restoration. Scaffolding started going up this past December and the dismantling will begin this month. Each piece will be labeled, crated and moved to a storage facility in Queens by Nicholson & Galloway, Inc. with Allen Architectual Metals consulting.
With the dismantling expected to be completed in April 2015, the revised construction drawings prepared by the engineering firm of Thornton Tomasetti will be presented to the Landmarks Preservation Commission, The State Office of Historic Preservation, Community Board 11 and to the Community Stakeholders. The approved drawings will then be submitted for bids.
Gaining the $4 million+ funds for this project was a labor of love by many, including two local community groups, the Marcus Garvey Park Alliance and the Mount Morris Park Community Improvement Association, a local architect and long-time advocate for the watchtower, Angel Ayon and a great deal of support, both financial and strategic from Councilwoman Inez Dickens whose district includes Harlem.
While the Parks Department has said that they are “fully committed to ensuring that any additional funds required for the restoration are allocated,” local advocates are keeping a watchful eye to make sure that the storage facility isn’t the end of the line for this historic treasure. In a recent New York Times article, Peg Breen, the President of the New York Landmarks Conservancy said that she would like to see this commitment in writing, noting that landmarks in Harlem are often neglected, referring to the recent attempts to save the historic Harlem Renaissance Ballroom.
The Park, which runs from 120th Street to 124th Street, is a beehive of activities and includes a weekend green market in the summer, basketball teams, outdoor swimming pool, amphitheater with free concerts including the Charlie Parker Jazz Festival, Jazzmobile and the Harlem Arts Festival as well as stage performances by the Classical Theatre of Harlem. The Harlem Drum Circle has called it their home for years. In addition, the park has two playgrounds, two Little Free Libraries and a community center. Future plans include restoration of each level of the Acropolis leading up to the watchtower, and creative use of every each level.
The tower was designated a City Landmark in 1967 and listed on the National Register of Historic Places in 1994. The anticipated reinstallation of the renovated tower will be the of Summer of 2017. You can keep up with the progress on the Harlem Fire Watchtower’s Facebook page, with daily updates by the Marcus Garvey Park Alliance or stop by and see for yourself by entering from the Madison Avenue and 123rd Street stairway.