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Project

Harlem Fire Watchtower

The Harlem Fire Watchtower is a beloved local landmark and an excellent example of early American cast iron frame construction.

Project Details

Project Partners
NYC DPR, Mueser Rutledge, Nicholson and Galloway, Allen Architectural Metals & Verdin Bell Company
Owner
New York City Department of Parks & Recreation
Location
New York, New York
Completion Date
Project Awards

New York Landmarks Conservancy, Lucy G. Moses Preservation Award, 2020

Municipal Art Society, MASterworks Award, Best Restoration, 2020

The Harlem Fire Watchtower in Manhattan. Courtesy Alexander Severin Architectural Photography
The Harlem Fire Watchtower in Manhattan. Courtesy Alexander Severin Architectural Photography
The Harlem Fire Watchtower in Manhattan. Courtesy Alexander Severin Architectural Photography
The Harlem Fire Watchtower in Manhattan. Courtesy Alexander Severin Architectural Photography
The Harlem Fire Watchtower in Manhattan. Courtesy Alexander Severin Architectural Photography
The Harlem Fire Watchtower in Manhattan. Courtesy Alexander Severin Architectural Photography
The Harlem Fire Watchtower in Manhattan. Thornton Tomasetti
The Harlem Fire Watchtower in Manhattan. Thornton Tomasetti
The Harlem Fire Watchtower in Manhattan. Thornton Tomasetti
The Harlem Fire Watchtower in Manhattan. Thornton Tomasetti

Overview

The Harlem Fire Watchtower was constructed in 1856 as one of a series of cast iron towers built throughout New York City designed to give firefighters a perch from which to watch over the community, and alert local fire company’s by ringing a bell. The Harlem Fire Watchtower is one of America’s oldest surviving cast iron framed structures. When pull boxes rendered the fire watchtowers obsolete in the 1870’s, the system was discontinued, and the other towers eventually were torn down. Harlem residents rallied to protect the tower, which endured and is now the last remaining fire watchtower in the city.

By the late 20th Century, the structure fell into disrepair and was near collapse. The structure, which is a NYC Landmark and listed on the National Register of Historic Places, was again saved by the activism of the Harlem Community, which inspired city officials to fund the restoration, which also included adjacent landscaping and restoration of the WPA era plaza known as the Acropolis. 

We were retained by the city for the tower’s first comprehensive restoration in more than 160 years. Our restoration design included structural assessment, historical documentation and a finite element analysis of the cast iron structure. Corrosion and structural movement had damaged a majority of structural elements, and the tower was systematically disassembled, with all elements carefully labeled and crated, and moved to a foundry for evaluation. To satisfy both structural and preservation goals, the tower was reconstructed as it originally stood but with an elaborate bracing system to make it structurally sufficient.

Harlem Fire Watchtower restoration before (left) and after. Alexander Severin photo.
watchtower Thornton Tomasetti personnel on site prior to removal of the scaffolding.

Highlights

  • The design clarifies the authenticity of the original structure with historic elements painted the original color and new interventions in stainless steel. 
  • Original cast iron elements underwent non-destructive testing (NDE) including magnetic particle inspection and elements that were too deteriorated to be reused were replicated in new cast iron.
  • Lost features were recreated based on documentation: the copper roof, the landscape around the tower, and security screens at ground level, all recalling the original appearance. 
  • The historic 1865 bell also underwent NDE that confirmed micro cracking caused by impact. Because of its unusually large size, the 5,000-pound bell subsequently was shipped to the Netherlands for brazing to reconstitute its structure.
  • We assisted the client with both Landmarks Preservation Commission and State Historic Preservation Office approvals.

The Mount Morris Fire Watchtower stands at the pinnacle of Harlem’s rich culture and serves as a monument to the neighborhood’s storied history. By restoring the cast iron structure and adjoining landscape, we have ensured the continued survival of this significant landmark and gathering space for years to come.
—  Mitchell J. Silver, FAICP, Commissioner, NYC Parks Department