The unique Harlem Fire Watchtower is back on its high perch in Marcus Garvey Park after being dismantled piece by piece and sent out of state for restoration. The Conservancy has been actively involved with the long process of renewal for this 1855-56 cast-iron structure, which once alerted local fire brigades to the presence of a fire using a coded series of peals from its five-ton bell. Prior to the restoration, the tower had been held up by a modern steel cradle that provided support for the 160-year-old cast-iron armature.
The landmark is beloved by neighborhood residents and preservationists who were skeptical about the need to dismantle it and send it away for restoration. Many feared that once taken away, it would be lost and never returned. They advocated for the restoration of the tower in place. But a Parks Department conditions report indicated that the structural condition of the historic armature was so dire that a collapse could happen at any time.
The Conservancy helped settle this dispute by bringing in an independent engineer to assess its condition. The report, funded by the Conservancy and the Marcus Garvey Park Alliance, was prepared by Robert Silman Associates. The second report confirmed the Parks Department’s prior assessment that the tower needed to be dismantled as soon as possible or risk catastrophic structural failure.
The Silman report showed areas of deterioration that had been unknown to the community or even to the Parks Department. The tower was in terrible condition. Because of the report and the photographs within the report, the community was re-assured that the steps proposed by Parks were indeed necessary.
The final result of this nail-bitter saga is a beautifully restored fire watchtower standing on its own without need of the visually intrusive cradle. The ribbon-cutting occurred on October 26 and was covered by the NY Times.