Harlemites and preservationists were delighted to receive the recent news that the historic Harlem Fire Watchtower, removed from the Acropolis overlooking Marcus Garvey Park in 2015 for restoration, will be reinstalled this summer! A staging area has already been prepared for trucks, and sheds have been constructed for equipment at the base of the Acropolis.
Let’s take a look back in time, when firehouses were the way city dwellers spotted fires and sounded an alert ~ before electric telegraphs were installed in 1878.
The Harlem Fire Watchtower was built by Julius H. Kroehl sometime between 1855 and 1857, and designed by James Bogardus at a cost of $2,300. It was located at the highest part of the Acropolis (70 feet above ground, known as Snake Hill) in the center of Marcus Garvey Park (formerly Mount Morris Park), between 120th and 124th Street. The tower alerted all of northern Manhattan of fires ~ three bells for Yorkville; four bells for Bloomingdale, five bells for Harlem, six bells for Manhattanville, and so on.
It is important to note that the ‘Acropolis’ was a ‘Works Project Administration’ (WPA) jobs program, creating stone retaining walls and wide steps going up to the Acropolis from several sides. Mount Morris Park was renamed Marcus Garvey Park in 1973.
The Harlem Fire Watchtower was designated a City Landmark in 1967, and listed on the National Register of Historic Places in 1994. It is constructed of cast iron, composed of three tiers of fluted columns superimposed on each other, and a spiral cast iron stairway leading to the top of the tower. It has a smaller, eight-sided open lantern at the top, which served as an observation booth to protect the volunteer watchmen from bad weather. It stands 47-feet tall, with a bell weighing 10,000 pounds. Age and weather have taken a toll on the beloved watchtower ~ the last surviving fire watchtower of the original thirteen that dotted Manhattan.
In recent years, the tower was exhibiting a great deal of deterioration. Community efforts moved forward raising funds for the project, which would cost about $4 million. Drawings were prepared and presented to the Landmarks Preservation Commission, the State Office of Historic Preservation and Community Board 11, and a timeline was put in place for the dismantling, renovation and return of the beloved historic structure.
April 18, 2014, scaffolding went up around the watchtower, fencing went up around the Acropolis, and the deconstruction began, dismantling the watchtower, piece by piece. Below are images of the final day, when the 10,000 pound bell was removed.
As a sidenote, did you know that the Harlem Fire Watchtower was featured prominently in Ralph Ellison’s novel ‘The Invisible Man’?
During this time, Marcus Garvey Park has flourished, with an abundance of events and activities including the annual Charlie Parker Jazz Festival, Classical Theatre of Harlem performances, and Jazzmobile held at the Richard Rodgers Amphitheater. The park has an abundance of playgrounds, a baseball field, chess tables, basketball, swimming pool, community center, three little free libraries, free reading to children (on the lawn under the trees), and every Saturday, weather permitting, the Harlem Drummers can be heard at the Drum Circle near Madison Avenue between 123/124th Streets. The park has also been the recipient of outdoor art installations through the efforts of the Marcus Garvey Park Alliance’s Public Art Initiative. Currently on view, Atlas of the Third Millennium by the artist Jorge Luis Rodriguez.
A specific date has not yet been set. We will continue to update this page, as progress occurs. In the meantime, follow progress on the Harlem Fire Watchtower Facebook Page.