The Miraculous Revival of the Last Fire Watchtower (Built in 1856)

Four years ago things were not looking good for the Harlem fire watchtower.

The 47-foot-tall, cast-iron structure in Marcus Garvey Park was the last of its kind in the city.

At their peak in the early 1870s, 11 watchtowers served New York City. Men used them to scan the surroundings for smoke or flames and let firefighters know where to go by the number of times they rang their bells.

But by 2015, the city’s one remaining tower, built in 1856, was falling apart. Acting on the advice of engineers, the New York City Department of Parks and Recreation set about dismantling the Harlem tower and placing it in storage, 12 miles away, in Queens.

Harlem residents and preservationists, who had long fought to save the tower, worried that once its bell, beams and fluted columns were packed into crates and carted off it, the tower would never be reassembled or seen in the Mount Morris neighborhood again.

But their worries were proved wrong. The pieces were not only watched over, they were restored, and the ones that were beyond repair were faithfully replicated. Recently everything was trucked back to the park, unpacked and reassembled.

The Harlem Watchtower will officially reopen on Saturday.

“It feels wonderful,” said Valerie Jo Bradley, a longtime Mount Morris resident and co-founder of the Marcus Garvey Park Alliance, who has been on the watchtower watch since 2000. Others were involved before that. “It’s been a long time coming.”

Harlem’s tower was constructed by Julius B. Kroehl atop a heap of Manhattan schist called Snake Hill. But almost as soon as the tower was erected there were problems.

The bell cracked and had to be replaced. Tension rods had to be installed “to pull the tower back together,” said John Krawchuk, who was the director of historic preservation in the parks department for many years and is now executive director of the Historic House Trust of New York City.

By 1880 the watchtowers went out of service, and they were eventually torn down, except for the one in Harlem. It has remained an integral part of the neighborhood.

For decades, at the community’s request, the bell was rung twice a day, at 9 a.m. and noon.

When Robert Moses was parks commissioner, he wanted to get rid of it, but residents lobbied to protect it.

In 1936, laborers for the Works Progress Administration created a plaza around the tower, enclosed by stone walls. Known as the Acropolis, it became the setting for Easter Sunday celebrations and more.

“It was a place to hang out — where the children would go and when they didn’t come home for dinner, their parents would find them there,” said Syderia Asberry-Chresfield, the former president of the Mount Morris Park Community Improvement Association, which raised money for the tower’s restoration. When her 90-year-old aunt was a teenager she met the man she would marry there.

A funeral takes place at the tower in a dramatic scene in Ralph Ellison’s novel “Invisible Man.”

The tower was deemed a New York City landmark in 1967 and listed on the National Register of Historic Places in 1976.

But official recognition did not staunch deterioration. By 1994 steel bracing had to be erected around the tower.

Eventually the Acropolis, and the larger park — renamed Marcus Garvey Park in 1973 in honor of the Jamaican-born Black nationalist — became a haven for drug dealers and addicts. The Marcus Garvey Park Alliance, founded in 2000 to reclaim the area for community use, made restoring the tower a priority.

Around that time, Angel Ayón, a preservation architect and a recent immigrant from Cuba, heard about the tower at a party. Soon after, he went to see it and was captivated.

The tower became the subject for his independent research project at Columbia University’s Graduate School of Architecture, Planning and Preservation. His findings made their way to the parks department, where over the years many in the agency have taken up the watchtower cause.

When Mitchell Silver became parks commissioner in 2014, he met with members of the community who were concerned the tower would languish in storage.

“I assured them we would make sure it was protected and keep them updated over the process,” he said.

When bids for the restoration came in high — because of the specialized nature of the cast-iron work — additional money was allocated.

“From my perspective,” Mr. Silver said, “this project was so important I was going to fund that shortfall.”

The work cost $7.9 million. Funding came from the mayor, the New York City Council and Manhattan borough president.

The repair work, overseen by the engineering firm Thornton Tomasetti, involved shipping the bronze bell, which weighs 5,000 pounds and is over five feet in diameter, to a foundry in the Netherlands.

Cast-iron parts went to a foundry in Alabama. They were painted the original taupe color that had been discovered under 15 coats of paint.

New tension rods were made of stainless steel to distinguish the 21st-century parts from original ones.

“This is a unique structure in New York City and the U.S.,” said Mr. Krawchuk earlier this week, standing on the lookout, where one can see to the bridges over the Hudson and East Rivers. “And it’s had a lot of backers.”

Mr. Ayón, who discovered the tower when he was 27, is now 47, with gray in his beard.

He lives in Brooklyn but said he will make the trip back to Harlem for the ribbon-cutting, at which the bell will be rung.

“I can’t wait to hear how it sounds,” he said.

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