Untapped New York is opening the doors to the historic Harlem Firewatch Tower, built on Mount Morris in the 1850s and restored in 2019. On May 20th at 3:30 p.m. and 27th at 3:30 p.m., Untapped New York Insiders are invited for a special tour in partnership with NYC Parks. Participants will go to the top of the 47-foot tall watchtower in Marcus Garvey Park, learn about its history and restoration, and see the 5,000-pound bell. This event is free for Untapped New York Insiders. If you’re not a member, become one now (and use the code JOINUS to get your first month free).
Harlem Firewatch Tower Tour
The Harlem Fire Watchtower was built by Julius H. Kroehl sometime between 1855 and 1857, and designed by James Bogardus at a cost of $2,300. Fire watchtowers were the way city dwellers spotted fires and sounded an alert, before electric telegraphs were installed in 1878. Together with the Croton Aqueduct and an extensive system of reservoirs, watchtowers helped protect 19th-century New Yorkers from fires.
The Harlem Fire Watchtower was located at the highest part of the Acropolis (70 feet above ground, known as Snake Hill and built as part of a WAP project) in the center of Marcus Garvey Park (formerly Mount Morris Park), between 120th and 124th Street. The tower alerted all of northern Manhattan of fires — three bells for Yorkville, four bells for Bloomingdale, five bells for Harlem, six bells for Manhattanville, and so on.
The Harlem Fire Watchtower was designated a City Landmark in 1967, and listed on the National Register of Historic Places in 1994. It is constructed of cast iron, composed of three tiers of fluted columns superimposed on each other, and a spiral cast iron stairway leading to the top of the tower. It has a smaller, eight-sided open lantern at the top, which served as an observation booth to protect the volunteer watchmen from bad weather. It stands 47-feet tall, with a bell weighing 5,000 pounds. Age and weather had taken a toll on the beloved watchtower, the last surviving fire watchtower of the original thirteen that dotted Manhattan.
The tower, exhibiting a great deal of deterioration in recent years, was in great need of restoration. Drawings were prepared and presented to the Landmarks Preservation Commission, the State Office of Historic Preservation and Community Board 11, and a timeline was put in place for the dismantling, renovation and return of the beloved historic structure.
The firm of Thornton Tomasetti was chosen for the restoration, and on April 18, 2014, scaffolding went up around the watchtower, fencing went up around the Acropolis, and the deconstruction began, dismantling the watchtower, piece by piece. The restoration project was extensive, and involved careful inspection and testing of the 176 original components. It was determined that only 39 could be salvaged, and that 137 needed to be recast.
Five years later, October 26, 2019, the unveiling and ribbon cutting event took place with the Park Rangers opening the gate to allow the public to climb to the top of the newly restored tower — and once again the 5,000 pound bell rung. Join Untapped New York on May 20th and 27th for a special tour to climb atop the watch tower!
Harlem Firewatch Tower Tour
Next, read about the top 10 secrets of Harlem!