A watchtower in Harlem, once a firefighter’s lookout, is restored as a landmark

The nearly $8 million project required major structural interventions.

October 29, 2019 |

The restoration of the Harlem Fire Watchtower in North Manhattan, which took two years to complete, required new cross bracing. Images: Courtesy of Thornton Tomasetti 

In the 1800s, firefighters in New York City watched over their communities perched from cast-iron watchtowers that dotted the metro, and rang bells in those towers to alert nearby fire companies.

Pull boxes for fire alarms rendered the towers obsolete in the 1870s, and over the decades those structures fell into disrepair and near collapse. One of the structures—the Harlem Fire Watchtower, the third such tower in the city, built in 1856 within Mount Morris Park (renamed Marcus Garvey Park in 1973), and deemed a NYC Landmark by the National Register of Historic Places in 1967—has been restored and reconstructed, thanks to the activism of Harlem’s community.

City officials retained the engineering firm Thornton Tomasetti to reconstruct the watchtower. Its restoration design included structural assessment, historical documentation, and a finite element analysis of the cast-iron structure.

Elements of the watchtower’s cast iron structure that analysis deemed too deteriorated for reuse were replicated. The old structure failed under wind load tests, and required interventions to satisfy structural and historic preservation goals. The reconstruction included a new bracing system. The historic metals were painted the original color, while supplemental elements were stainless steel.

The tower’s 5,000-lb bell, dating back from 1865, underwent a non-destructive testing that confirmed casting anomalies and micro cracking. The bell was shipped to the Netherlands for brazing to reconstitute its structure.

Using historic photos as its guide, Thornton Tomasetti recreated or restored several of the watchtower’s lost features, such as its copper sheet roof. Landscaping around the tower was modified with ADA-compliant access. Ground-level security screens, a modern twist, nevertheless recall the original enclosure. Lighting protection, concealed within the structure, is incorporated into the roof filial.

 

 

Engineers from Thornton Tomasetti inspect a portion of the Harlem Fire Watchtower.

 

The city’s Landmarks Preservation Commission approved the reconstruction of the four-story octagonal watchtower on July 14, 2015. The project’s funding was $7,970,000, and reconstruction began in July 2017. Its Reconstruction Team included the NYC Department of Parks & Recreation (which owns and operates the park), Mueser Rutledge (engineering consultant), Nicholson and Galloway (copper roofing), Allen Architectural Metals (cast iron structure), and Verdin Bell Company.

The reinstalled watchtower was revealed at a ceremony on October 26 at the Acropolis, which overlooks the park. The Marcus Garvey Park Alliance/Public Arts Initiative has requested city funding to install lights and cameras on the Acropolis.

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