Harlem Fire Watchtower

Community Engagement and Preservation

Of the eight original cast iron watchtowers, only one has survived, the Harlem Fire Watchtower, which stands as an icon of Harlem in Marcus Garvey Park (formerly Mount Morris Park). Since the 1920s, the Harlem community has rallied around the preservation of the tower, most notably during the height of the great depression. Under the Works Progress Administration, a plan was set to level Mount Morris and raze the tower to build a new plaza. The local community managed to overturn this plan, modifying the project to instead refurbish it, create a new base, and place it as the center of a new stone plaza.

The Fire Watchtower has become both a gathering place for the local community and a Harlem icon; in 1967, the city declared the Watchtower a New York City Landmark. By 1975, the Watchtower was listed on the National Register of Historic Places opening the door for further conservation efforts. The first historic and technical study took place in the mid-1980s revealing new information of the tower’s history and construction.

In 2000, the Marcus Garvey Park Alliance formed as a community-based organization to advocate and coordinate efforts in preserving the tower and park. Most recently, the city and community groups, including the Mt. Morris Park Community Improvement Assn., rallied around the preservation of the tower, raising the necessary public funds for a long-term conservation project, which includes dismantling and storing the cast iron components, shop repairing the salvageable pieces and reconstruction. The work towards this goal began in the fall of 2014, marked by the tower shrouded by scaffolding and mesh for its dismantling. 

History of Fire

New York’s history of fires goes back as far as New Amsterdam in 1628 with the first documented fire. Fires would be a continuous threat as the city grew denser and taller, marked by several “Great Fires.”

Among these famous conflagrations includes the Great Fire of 1766. Set by arsonists in support of the Revolution, they hoped to close access to the port from the British, but the fire got out of hand destroying 600-1000 buildings. With the occupation by the British, the city government dissolved with the fleeing citizens and the bells once used as fire alarms were melted down for ammunition. This left the city with no fire alarms or services to put the fires out.

The largest fire New York would face occurred at 8:00 in the morning on December 16, 1835. Striking the heart of the city, the Merchant Exchange and eventually the Stock Exchange would succumb to the embers while the fire burned down to the East River. In total, this fire would destroy over thirteen acres.

With many additional fires that included the burning of the Crystal Palace and P.T. Barnum’s American Museum, fires and warehouse explosions were a common occurrence during the height of the Industrial Revolution with unsafe working conditions and practices. 

Building the Watchtower

It was clear early on that New York needed a city-wide fire alarm system. Shortly after the Revolution, the first bell towers were built. Simply built with only a bell, observation decks wouldn’t be added until 1830, the first stationed within the dome of City Hall. Originally made from wood, a few watchtowers were replaced with stone such as the Jefferson Market Fire Watchtower.

By the 1850s, the city proposed a more connected alarm system, linking cast-iron towers throughout the city within their fire districts with the newly introduced telegraph system. Julius Kroel won the bid to construct the tower at Mount Morris Park for $2,300.

Taking advantage of the height the hill afforded, the four-story tower was an early example of cast iron architecture in New York. As described by Angel Ayon, architect and preservationist:

“It is an open cast iron structure composed of three tiers of fluted columns superimposed on each other. A smaller eight-sided open lantern at the top served as an observation booth to protect the volunteer watchmen from adverse weather. A large bronze bell hangs from the crossed trusses at the second floor level. A spiral cast iron stairway sweeps upward, adding a graceful curve to the otherwise linear, octagonal composition. … the slender, fluted columns have bases and Doric capitals…”

Marcus Garvey

The Harlem Fire Watchtower is located in Marcus Garvey Park, formerly Mount Morris Park. The park was renamed in Marcus Garvey’s honor in 1973.

Garvey was born in Jamaica, 1887. Deeply influenced by African-American thinkers such as Booker T. Washington, Martin Delany and Henry McNeal Turner, Garvey developed a philosophy of Pan-African identity.

In 1914, Garvey organized the Universal Negro Improvement Association (UNIA). Three years later, branches opened outside Jamaica advocating ideas for social, political and economic freedom for black people. At this time, Marcus Garvey moved to New York where he held regular evening speeches on street corners.

Through his newspaper, Negro World, Garvey had a platform to advocate and encourage support for UNIA. In 1920, the UNIA held its first convention in Madison Square Garden, which 25,000 people attended to hear Garvey speak.

Central to the UNIA’s philosophy was to establish a permanent homeland in Africa and to unite the African diaspora.

But Garvey’s fight wasn’t without controversy. Most notably, W.E.B. DuBois felt Garvey was undermining his own fight for black rights and the NAACP.

However, Marcus Garvey’s influence is long-reaching. Schools, colleges and buildings have been named after him in Africa, the Caribbean, Europe and the U.S., and he has been named a National Hero of Jamaica.

Restoration Efforts

In 2015, as the first phase of reconstruction, the Tower was systematically surveyed, catalogued, and dismantled. The intention of the watchtower restoration project is to restore the tower retaining as much of the original fabric as possible. NYC Parks envisions the design to reflect a three-pronged interpretive approach: combining traditional preservation methodologies, restoration, and recreation, while appropriately addressing both public safety and security concerns of a historic resource within a public park. Additionally, NYC Parks hopes to open the tower for public tours during special events. NYC Parks aims to restore the fire watchtower so that it will once again serve as a gathering place for the surrounding Harlem community.


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