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Harlem fire watchtower revived after $7.9M restoration

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The restoration ensures that the city’s last remaining fire watchtower will stand for years to come

The newly refurbished watchtower in Harlem’s Marcus Garvey Park.
The tower was originally constructed in 1856 but was decommissioned by 1880.
Daniel Avila/NYC Parks

The iron watchtower that’s presided over Harlem’s Marcus Garvey Park for more than 140 years has reopened after a multi-million dollar restoration.

The watchtower is a vestige of old New York, one of 11 fire lookouts erected across the city in the mid 1800s, and the only of the bunch that remained standing as of 2015 when the tower was dismantled for its restoration. The beloved structure became a New York landmark in 1967 and was listed on the National Register of Historic Places in 1976.

Those designations mean that engineering firm Thornton Tomasetti, who oversaw the restoration on behalf of the Parks Department, had to approach the project in a way that was structurally thorough but historically sensitive. At that, the tower’s 5,000-pound bronze bell was sent to a foundry in the Netherlands to be mended and cast iron structural piece in need of repair were sent less far afield, to Alabama, the New York Times notes.

To shore up structural deficiencies present at the time of the tower’s dismantling, the lookout was reinforced with internal cross bracing and new stainless steel components. The original components were restored to the tower’s onetime taupe color, which was rediscovered under some 15 coats of paint. The tower’s roof was also restored to its original 1850s configuration with the help of archival photographs.

The watchtower’s 5,000-pound bronze bell.
Daniel Avila/NYC Parks

The area surrounding the watchtower has also been spiffed up with code-compliant guardrails and restored bluestone pavement on the upper level of the Acropolis, the plaza created around the tower in the mid-1930s by the Works Progress Administration.

The restoration project cost $10.5 million in total, $2.6 million of which went towards dismantling the project in 2015 and $7.9 million that went towards its restoration. A hefty portion of the restoration funds, $6.6 million, came from the office of Mayor de Blasio, with the rest of the funds coming from former Councilmember and current Assemblymember Inez Dickens, Councilmember Bill Perkins, and Manhattan Borough President Gale Brewer. The Central Park Conservancy also provided funds for the project.

“The Mount Morris Fire Watchtower stands at the pinnacle of Harlem’s rich culture and serves as a monument to the neighborhood’s storied history,” said Parks Department Commissioner Mitchell Silver. “By restoring the cast iron structure and adjoining landscape, we have ensured the continued survival of this significant landmark and gathering space for years to come.”

Marcus Garvey Park

Mount Morris Park West, Manhattan, NY 10027 Visit Website