New York’s Last Fire Watchtower Has Been Restored

Built in the 1850s, the structure was once part of the city’s fire-fighting network

The tower had undergone a $7.9 million renovation. Flickr user Jeremy Seto under (CC BY-NC-SA 2.0)

In the 19th century, New York was strategically dotted with a series of bell towers, from which watchmen scanned the cityscape for fires. If flames were spotted, these people could direct fire companies to the right spot, using an alarm code that indicated the severity and location of the incident. Though the advent of more sophisticated firefighting technologies ultimately rendered the watchtowers obsolete, one remained standing in Harlem, atop a rocky outcropping known as Mount Morris. And now, as Jane Margolies reports for the New York Times, the city’s last remaining fire watchtower has undergone much-needed restoration.

Located in an area now known as Marcus Garvey Park, the 47-foot Mount Morris Watchtower was built in the 1850s. The Harlem tower was made with “then-revolutionary building technology,” whereas some of the city’s earlier towers were constructed out of wood and several of which, ironically, were devoured by fire, according to NYC Parks. More specifically, the newer towers were built from cast-iron, in an architectural style that “inspired the steel cages developed in the 1880s to support skyscrapers.”

By the 1870s, as the city’s fire department began installing telegraphic alarms on street corners and in tall buildings, the watchtowers fell into disuse. One by one, they disappeared—all but the Harlem tower. The structure was situated in a remote location, which was one reason it remained standing, according to the Marcus Garvey Park Alliance. But the local community also wanted the tower to stay. Residents asked that the tower’s bell continued to sound at regular intervals for the sake of timekeeping—and it did, until 1909. When parks commissioner Robert Moses tried to take the tower down, the community fought to protect it, Margolies reports.

New York’s Last Fire Watchtower Has Been Restored
Harlem's Mt. Morris Park Watchtower was built with solid cast iron at the turn of the century. It's the last standing tower from that time because many of the other towers were made of wood and ironically, burned down in fires. Photo by Pat Carroll/NY Daily News Archive via Getty Images

“It was a place to hang out—where the children would go and when they didn’t come home for dinner, their parents would find them there,” Syderia Asberry-Chresfield, former president of the Mount Morris Park Community Improvement Association, tells Margolies.

In 1967, the tower was designated a New York City landmark, and the site was included in the National Register of Historic Places in 1976. But over the years, the tower fell into disrepair. Its bell cracked, and the structure needed to be stabilized in 1994. Residents grew worried about it; Angel Ayón, a preservation architect, began leading the effort to save the landmark in 2000. But in 2015, because pieces of the tower were still falling off, it was taken apart and placed in storage.

Harlem residents were determined to bring the tower back to life. But restoring the 160-year-old structure was no easy feat. Its 5,000-pound bronze bell had to be shipped to a foundry in the Netherlands, according to Margolies, while the cast-iron parts were sent to Alabama for repairs.

“What you’re seeing today is about 80 percent replacement parts and 20 percent original pieces,” John Krawchuk of the Historic House Trust, which advocates for the preservation of New York’s historic sites, tells CBS New York.

The restoration effort ultimately cost nearly $8 million, with funds coming from the mayor, the Manhattan borough president and the New York City council. The Marcus Garvey Parks Alliance hopes to organize visits to the tower at some point in the future, but the structure is not currently open for public tours. For now, those who advocated for the landmark’s salvation are simply happy to see it standing.

“The structure itself is almost like a monument and the place is a place where everyone has memories,” Connie Lee of the Park Alliance tells CBS.

And on Saturday, after years of silence, the Harlem tower’s bell rang once again.

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