The fire watchtower in the middle of Marcus Garvey Park — one of the city’s most spectacular and least-known landmarks — is deteriorating in danger of collapsing.
Bits and pieces of the 47-foot, corroded cast-iron structure have already fallen to the ground — and a strip of sheet metal from the top of its observation deck flew off in 2012 and got stuck in the branches of a tree, residents say.
“We are seeing small pieces of it collapse and fall to the ground — right in front of our eyes,” says Angel Ayon, a local architect and preservationist who notes that urgent action to disassemble and restore the tower cannot be delayed.
The deterioration is more severe than it was in 2008, when a city Parks Department study found the condition of most of the tower’s components was “poor” or “failed.” No work has been performed in the five years since, officials confirm.
“Eventually, over time, it could collapse,” said Manhattan Borough Parks Commissioner William Castro.
Perched on a hilltop called the Acropolis and closed to the public, the four-story, octagonal tower, graced with a large alarm bell, was built in 1856 when the city’s mostly wooden buildings were hugely vulnerable to fire.
It is the sole survivor of the eight watchtowers that were once scattered across Manhattan, connected via telegraph, which were decommissioned in 1878 when the first fire-alarm boxes were installed on the island. “The Fire Watchtower has a quality of pristine beauty in its slender elegance that is unmatched elsewhere,” wrote the Landmarks Preservation Commission in 1967 when it voted unanimously to designate the tower a city landmark.
Not anymore: “Cast iron was never designed to last this long, and bits of it are corroding and wearing off and falling down, and cracks and holes have been developing over time,” Castro said.
“One piece falls and other pieces fall off and it cannot continue this way,” he added. “It can reach a critical mass, and then you’re in danger of losing the whole structure or parts of it.”
Parks officials say the long-term solution is to dismantle, salvage, restore and reassemble the tower, a $4.5 million project for which no funds are budgeted.
Until cash for the major reconstruction is available, the city plans a $325,000 stabilization of the highest, most vulnerable level of the tower, an emergency stop-gap approach that will be put out to bid later this year.
“The funds will allow the tower to be shored up — so it doesn’t just collapse overnight!” said City Councilwoman Inez Dickens, who is contributing $250,000 in discretionary funds that she usually provides to other parks in her district.
Laurent Delly, a civil engineer who is vice president of the Mount Morris Park Community Improvement Association, says the reinforcements cannot come quickly enough.
“We need to take action right now to refurbish it,” Delly said. “Not yesterday, not tomorrow, but today — because the structure is so fragile that anything can happen to it.”
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