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New York City's Last Fire Watchtower Will Be Restored

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The historic cast iron watchtower at the top of Marcus Garvey Park in Harlem is getting a new lease on life. This Tuesday, a team from the NYC Parks Department presented plans to the Landmarks Preservation Commission to restore the 158-year-old watchtower, the last of its kind in New York City. The Parks Department, which has worked on this project for 10 years, already dismantled the watchtower this spring after it was declared structurally unsound. The structure is now being stored at a secure site in Queens, with plans to begin restoration and rebuilding next summer and open the tower in the summer of 2017. "We dismantled the structure successfully, now the goal is restoration while making it accessible to the public and providing security as a park element," said John Krawchuk, the director of historic preservation for the Parks Department, which will also be upgrading the park's landscape. The commission praised the plan, calling it "an amazing" contribution to the community.

The watchtower, de-commissioned in the 1870s, has been altered since it was erected in 1857. The Parks Department proposal is to restore as much of the original wrought and cast iron as possible, and rebuild with new stainless steel supports. The roof will be expanded and restored to its original 1850s appearance, and it will also open as a viewing platform to the public. The Parks Department proposed to add an enclosed entrance at the base of the watchtower for security purposes. The historic 10,000-pound bell, which was rung to alert nearby fire stations of a blaze, will return. "We wanted to have a light touch," said Krawchuk, referring to the changes in place.

Although this is not under the LPC's jurisdiction, the Parks Department noted that the restoration will be paired with upgrades to the surrounding Marcus Garvey Park. Parks plans to reduce and lower some of the surrounding walls in the park to increase visibility, and will consolidate the park's green spaces. There's a two-foot drop within the park, and rather than build out stairs or ramps, Parks will design a gradual grade change. "There will be native plantings over a simple landscape," said Krawchuk.

There was concern from LPC commissioners of the visibility of the stainless steel supports within the cast iron structure. "I heard the possibility from a structural engineer that it may be possible for a less visible approach for structural supplementation," said Commissioner Michael Devonshire. But as a rep from the Parks Department pointed out, "This structure needs a lot of bracing."

There were also questions about what time period the Parks Department hoped to replicate in this restoration, as the watchtower has changed over the years. "It seems like we're choosing what [historic] features we're trying to bring back," said Commissioner Roberta Washington. "We're not replicating any specific time, but trying to bring back as much of the 1850s structure as possible unless there are security, public access, or code concerns," said Krawchuk. "We're trying to bring the structure into today."

Overall, commissioners spoke highly of the project. Chairwomen Meenakshi Srinivasan said "the agency has received so many letters about this," noting the significant support given by the Harlem community. (Both the Marcus Garvey Park Alliance and the Mount Morris Park Community Improvement Association helped raise funds for the $4 million restoration.)

Chairwoman Srinivasan called this an "adaptive reuse project," and applauded the Parks Department for "retaining as much of the delicacy of the original structure as possible." She added, "Intervention is necessary to bring the structure back." Commissioner Frederick Bland agreed, saying "I'm convinced this is probably the right way to do it, with new pieces distinct from the original fabric of the structure." He called it a "great educational tool," referring to the Parks plan to bring students here to learn about the history of NYC firefighting.

Overall, the commission approved the proposal with some modifications. They requested that the Parks Department salvage as much of the cast iron as possible and distinguish the newer stainless steel additions from the original cast iron. The commission asked that Parks explore how to minimize the appearance of the stainless steel rods, and also make sure that fencing at the entrance will not impose on the structure.

"This is a project I can support as proposed, and I see an amazing and immense benefit to the community," said Chairwoman Srinivasan.
· Harlem Fire Watchtower [Facebook]
· Fire Watchtower [official]
· Harlem Fire Watchtower [Curbed]