Mt. Morris Firetower

photo by: Alexander Severin

Preservation Magazine, Winter 2020

All Along the Watchtower: Saving a Harlem Landmark

Drama has always surrounded the Harlem Fire Watchtower in New York City’s Marcus Garvey Park. Its original designer, engineer Julius Kroehl, was the focus of a lawsuit by cast-iron architecture pioneer James Bogardus because his drawings for the structure were suspiciously similar to ones Bogardus had already submitted. Once it was built in 1856, the tower was one of several across the city used to spot fires and sound an alarm through the ringing of a massive bell.

Its functionality only lasted a few years—by the 1870s, call boxes had replaced firetowers. But the Harlem community had grown attached to its tower. “Every time the bell gets out of order … I am besieged with letters from citizens, who wish to know what the trouble is,” the local fire captain told The New York Times in 1896.

That level of personal concern about the watchtower (aka the Mount Morris Fire Watchtower) continued for the next 120-plus years. Every time it was threatened, the community rallied to save it. The city dismantled it in 2010, and in October of 2019, the reconstructed and restored tower reopened on its original site.

Engineers Thornton Tomasetti led the $7.9 million tower restoration, working with city agencies, general contractor Nicholson & Galloway, consulting engineer Mueser Rutledge, and a host of metal restoration experts. Thornton Tomasetti’s Robert Kornfeld estimates that about 20 to 25 percent of the cast iron was reused, including the original stairs. Stainless steel bracing was added for safety; the tower, which still provides panoramic views of Harlem, is now open for public tours on select days.

Meghan Drueding

Meghan Drueding is the executive editor of Preservation magazine. She has a weakness for Midcentury Modernism, walkable cities, and coffee-table books about architecture and design.

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