Monday, July 15, 2019

The Lost Watt-Pinckney Mansion - 139th and Adam Clayton Powell Jr. Blvd.

photo from the collection of the New York Public Library

On April 3, 1827 the Washington newspaper National Intelligencer reported "On Thursday evening, by the Rev Dr. McAuley, at his country seat, Spring Hill, Archibald Watt, Esq. merchant of this city [was married] to Mrs. Mary Pinkney, widow of Col. Ninian Pickney of the U. S. Army.  (For decades newspapers would arbitrarily spell the name either Pinkney and Pinckney.)

Archibald Watt and his brother, James, had arrived in New York from Dundee, Scotland early in the century.  Decades later The Buffalo Courier would describe Archibald as "a canny Scotchman who had come to New York with nothing but his brains."  He formed a partnership with Alexander Sutherland in the importing firm of Sutherland & Watt, dealing in hard to get items like "Spanish Segars," "Portorico Coffee of excellent quality," rum and cognac.

The country seat in which he and Mary Pinckney were married was far to the north, in Harlem.  Watts was among the first of well-to-do New Yorkers to recognize the potential of the district.  He purchased a massive estate from John de Lancy the year before the wedding, paying $62,500--about $1.64 million today.  

It included a dignified Georgian-style manse.  Sitting above a high fieldstone basement, it featured the elegant details expected in the summer homes of the wealthy.  A columned porch provided respite on warm afternoons and evenings and sheltered the wide entrance with its ample sidelights and fanlight.  Wooden quoins at the corners rose to simple capitals below the peaked roof.  

The Spring Hill house around 1841.  original source unknown
Moving into Spring Hill with the couple were Mary's daughters, 17-year old Mary Goodwin and 2-year old Antoinette H. Pinckney.  The girls' father, who came from and old Maryland family, had been "conspicuous in the Revolution War," according to the New York Herald later.  He had remained in the Army until his death in September 1824.  Mary inherited $40,000 from his estate, about a half million by today's standards. (Antoinette was not mentioned, most likely because he died so soon after her birth, before being able to change the will.)

The entrance hall was filled with American Empire style furniture and artworks.  Note the unusual shutters in the fanlight. photo by Edwin Levick from the collection of the Museum of the City of New York 

On the property, not far away from the Watt mansion, was a stone house with a hip roof and cupola, home to Watt's step-son Thomas Watt.  

Antoinette Pinckney died in the Harlem house on November 9, 1841 at the age of 16.  At the time her step-father was in serious financial trouble.  The Financial Panic of 1837 had seriously depleted his fortune and the city was poised to take much of his Harlem real estate for back taxes.  Only a week before Antoinette's death, the Board of Alderman had given him another chance.  The minutes of their meeting on October 31 noted they had voted "In favor of suspending the sale of property of Archibald Watt for unpaid assessment."

Struggling to retain his vast holdings, Watt turned to an unexpected rescuer--his step-daughter Mary.  Decades later, in 1902, the New York Herald would describe why Mary gave Watts her large inheritance and he, in turn, transferred title to his entire estate to her. 

James and Archibald had embarked on an ambitious project which would greatly enhance the value of their Harlem real estate.  The newspaper explained that they "originated a scheme to build a ship canal from the Hudson at Manhattanville, just above the site of Grant's Tomb, to the Harlem River.  But they disagreed, and because of this and differences with James, his stepson, Archibald Watt, anxious to keep the property in the family, transferred his deeds to his stepdaughter, Mary G. Pickney, and she gave him all her ready money in return."

It made her the largest land owner in Harlem.

When this photo was taken after the turn of the century, apartment buildings were encroaching around the wooden-fenced enclave.  photo by Edwin Levick from the collection of the Museum of the City of New York
Around the end of the Civil War the Watts house was slightly moved in order to make way for Seventh Avenue (a sign of the approaching development of Harlem and of Mary G. Pinckney's holdings--which included more than 1,000 building lots on paper).  She took the opportunity to remodel the house, giving it a full third floor in the form of a fashionable mansard and a large widow's watch with a matching French Second Empire style roof.  The former single-story porch now rose two stories, its columns upholding an extension of the top floor.  She did some furniture shopping as well, adding up-to-date Rococo Revival parlor pieces to the original American Empire furnishings of her mother.

Mary introduced modern furniture to the parlor--a large suite which looks to have come from the shop of John Henry Belter; and a new marble mantel.   Familiar pieces like the center table remained.  Note the hefty bronze sculpture under the gilt mirror.  photograph by Edwin Levick from the collection of the Museum of the City of New York

One by one, as her parents and relatives died, they were buried in the family cemetery, God's Acre, on the property.  As Mary grew older, now alone in the house, she was generous with her relatives.  Thomas Watt had married in 1864 and had four children, two sons and two daughters.  Over time Mary gave each of them full blocks of real estate.   Thomas's son Archibald Watt received the block that held the family home, between West 141st and 142nd Street.

But she was a shrewd businesswoman as well who knew exactly how to play the game.  The New York Herald noted "she parts with only a part of each block.  Buildings go up so rapidly that the remaining property is soon worth more than the whole plot when the sale was made."  And the newspaper wrote "Much has been said of Miss Pinkney's system of making the city wait until the last day of grace before paying taxes."  She recognized the rapid pace at which her property was gaining value and by not paying until the last day, "she saves money and has greatly increased her immense fortune."

The dining room was a comfortable hodgepodge.  The original lion-footed Empire table and sideboard (at far right) co-exist with a Victorian sideboard from the remodeling and marble mantel of the same period.  Above the fireplace an early 19th century Federal mirror hangs.  photograph by Edwin Levick from the collection of the Museum of the City of New York

In 1883 The Buffalo Evening News reported "The largest lady real estate owner in New York is Miss Mary G. Pinckney, who lives on West 139th street, near Seventh avenue.  She owns block after block of unimproved property, including the Polo ground and vacant lots near it...Miss Pinckney is a somewhat eccentric lady of middle age."

Her wealth, business acumen, and marital status fascinated newspapers for her entire adult life.  On February 19, The Daily Saratogian informed its readers "The largest land owner in New York state, except the Astor and Rhinelander families, is a woman, Miss Mary G. Pinckney, a millionaire many times over.  She has lived to be 73-years-old and is still a Miss, though she had all that money."  The following year, on February 3, 1891, The Buffalo Evening News reported her estate at $10 million--more than 28 times that much in today's dollars.

The staircase was tucked discretely behind the entrance hall.  A row of hooks line up on the wall, their purpose intriguingly obscure.   photo by Edwin Levick, from the collection of the Museum of the City of New York

As generous as Mary was to her relatives, she was less so to her tenants.  On June 16, 1891 The Evening Post reported that she had won her suit against "John B. Day as President of the New York Base-Ball Club."  The team was six months behind in its rent of the Polo Grounds, refusing to pay because the city had torn down a fence for "regulating and grading the street."  Mary won the $3,322.25 in back rent.

In January 1902 Mary was visited by Henry H. Wibirt, a friend of her niece, Julia.   He explained that after being abandoned by her husband, Julia was too proud to ask for financial help, but a gift of a block of property would be helpful.  Mary complied with little prodding, transferring title to a $250,000 block to Julia.

Julia Morris Watts, the daughter of Thomas Watts, had first married in 1884 and had three children.  But, as pointed out by the New York Herald on May 1, 1902, "they did not live happily together and she finally procured a divorce."  While the proceedings were in process she broke her ankle and was attended to by Dr. Roland A Curtiss, whom she married.  But now he, too, had left her.

As it turned out, Wibirt was not Julia's friend at all, but a paid agent.  And although the New York Herald said that she "has always had large sums of money at her disposal, and has been accustomed to gratify her wishes without stopping to count the cost," she refused to pay him the $23,500 he had earned by that April.  His suit made public Julia's scheme.

Unlike her aunt, Julia spurned neither publicity nor the photographer's lens.  New York Herald, May 1, 1902 (copyright expired)
His action listed his services which had not only included "inducing Roland A. Curtiss to call upon her, and tracing Rolland A. Curtiss," but "calling on Mary G. Pinckney and getting her to convey certain real estate to Mrs. Curtiss."  Wibirt was awarded $13,500 on April 29.  Mary Pinckney was no doubt humiliated by the publicity and disappointed in the betrayal by her niece.

Mary used the Harlem mansion only during the summer season, spending the winters at the Hotel Buckingham.  While the Wibert-Curtiss trial was being splashed throughout the newspapers, a cousin, Mary Van Buren Vanderpool, was also wintering there.  On May 25, 1902 the New-York Herald announced that she "will go to the Watt-Pinckney mansion, at 139th street and Seventh avenue, where she will remain for the summer with her cousin, Miss Mary Goodwin Pinckney."  

Mary Goodwin Pinckney transacted millions of dollars of business from this desk in the library.  On the walls are maps to keep track of her vast holdings.  photo by Edwin Levick from the collection of the Museum of the City of New York

When Mary's nephew, Archibald Watt, died in June 1906 The Evening Telegram noted "much speculation exists to-day as to what disposal will be made of his historic farm and mansion in upper Harlem."  Within the block of land stood the house, and a stone stable.  "The grounds surrounding it show but a feeble effort to modernize them, although in parts and near the residence the lawns have been fairly well kept."  By now the abutting blocks, except for Mary's, had been developed with apartment houses.  The two mansions stood as remarkable anachronisms; rural oases within an urban environment.

The answer came six months later when The Evening Telegram reported that Archibald's daughter, Grace, had sold the property.  The article's headline read "Famous Watt 'Farm' Passes Amid Regrets / Noted Estate in Harlem is Reported as About To Be Sold, Despoiling Landmark."

Among those watching the old residence pass "amid regrets" was no doubt Mary G. Pinckney.   But before long the survival of her own time capsule would be in question.  That same year the elderly woman showed signs of "failing health," according to The Evening Telegram.  She was at the Hotel Buckingham, as normal, on December 5, 1908 when her condition took a serious downturn.  She died there two days later at the age of 99.

The Evening Telegram noted "Her mental faculties remained clear up to the last moment and until death finally approached she continued to give directions to those about her regarding her business and personal affairs."

Mary's will was made public on December 14.  A front page headline in The Evening World proclaimed "$50,000,000 Pinkney Estate Goes To A Man And Two Women."  Those heirs were were the three surviving children of her half-brother:  Thomas L. Watt, Julia Watt Morris Curtiss, and Grace Watt Thomas.  She had also remembered Mary Van Buren Vanderpool with a bequest of $20,000; and two long term servants, William Henry and James Kelly each received $500, at little over $14,000 today.

Astute in business matters and real estate, Mary had been well-aware that her private refuge would not last many years after her death.  The Evening World noted "The will directs that all the bodies of members of her family lying in the little 'God's Acre,' on her estate, between One Hundred and Thirty-ninth and One Hundred and Fortieth street, Lenox and Seventh avenues, be removed to her plot in Woodlawn, the expenses to be defrayed from her estate"

This bedroom was outfitted with the original Empire furnishings.  The curtains and bed linens are excruciatingly perfect. 
This child's room, evidenced by the small bed and toy chest, boasted wonderful built-in storage.  photo by Edwin Levick from the collection of the Museum of the City of New York
Thomas Watt received what The Evening World described as "that magnificent manor house and grounds," as well as "all her horses and carriages, her library, household property, jewelry and personal ornaments."  The house was like a fly caught in amber; a slice of bucolic Harlem at the end of the Civil War.

Her massive inheritance was, apparently, not enough for Grace Watt, whose married name was Thomas.  Before a year was up she sued the executors of her aunt's estate for a larger portion.

And before long Julia Watt Morris Curtiss was back in the newspapers as well.  If Mary Pinckney was at all offended by Julia's ruse involving Henry H. Wilbirt, it was not serious enough to prevent her from leaving Julia $10 million--or $285 million in today's money.  But for now she was unable to spend any of it.

In July 1907 her son, Louis H. Morris, had her "adjudged incompetent to manager her estate."  The reasons he cited included her spending "$200,000 yearly on dresses and in entertaining her friends."  And according to the Bridgeport, Connecticut Evening Farmer, "Among other things it was charged that Mrs. Curtiss was in the habit of engaging private boxes at theatres and remaining in them long after the final curtain had been rung down; that she had spent $12,000 foolishly in one month; that she had bought a dozen parasols ranging in price from $50 to $450 each; that she had an ungovernable temper and that by reason of old age, loss of memory and other causes specified that she was incapable of managing her affairs."

But Julia finally won out.  On August 17, 1909 Connecticut Supreme Court Justice Brady gave her "absolute control over her vast fortune," as reported by The Farmer.  The article said "Mrs. Curtiss, when seen yesterday would not say how she intended to use her money, except that she would see that she was provided with the necessities of life, which, she alleged, the conservators have deprived her of for two years."

But Julia's freedom to spend did not last long.   A year later, almost to the day, on August 16, 1910, New York Justice Lehman again deemed her "an incompetent" and "suggested that her best interest would be subserved if she were required to return to Fairfield, Conn.," as reported by the New-York Tribune.  Once again her fortune was put in the hands of conservators "because of her intemperate habits."

Mary G. Pinckey's heirs sold off blocks and individual plots into the 1920's.  Among the last to go was the block containing the mansion and gardens.   On November 29, 1925 a headline in The New York Times read "Harlem To Lose Ancient Landmark."

"Eleven years ago the last social function was held in which members of the Watt family participated in that interesting Harlem mansion known to New York history for practically a century as the Watt house.  It was the reception late in 1914 celebrating the marriage of Anna Pinkney Watt, a descendant of Archibald Watt."  But "last week the small plot occupied by the ancient dwelling...was purchased by a New York attorney, Harold S. Radner, for about $5,000,000.  He is having plans prepared to erect on the site a six-story apartment house."  The article added that "Within a few weeks housewreckers will begin tearing down the oldest residential landmark remaining in the Harlem area."

photographer unknown, from the collection of the Museum of the City of New York
The writer paused to describe the out-of-place property among the apartment buildings.  It was "in its original condition, with magnificent trees, pleasant flower gardens, two barns and a row of chicken houses.  The dignified frame house with its mansard roof, tall columns adorning the entrance and cupola presented an interesting contrast amid the increasing apartment houses which effectually wiped out the rural character of the locality."

The ultimate insult.  The site of the Watt-Pinckney mansion today.

many thanks to reader Phyllis Winchester for prompting this post


  1. I agree - very interesting. One thing I notice is no mention is made of Miss Mary G. Pinckney using deed restrictions in an effort to control what would be built around her mansion, as the Vanderbilts and Andrew Carnegie did. She had to have been aware she was being surrounded by apartments while Washington Heights north of her was where mansions were being built. Good for the bank account … not so much the preservation of her mansion.

    Tom, question: Do you think Miss Mary G. Pinckney's approach contributed to the collapse of Harlem real estate values around 1904?

    1. regarding the first point, She was fully aware of the encroaching development because SHE was selling of the property. It appears she was quite content with her single-block enclave and equally satisfied with reaping the financial rewards of selling off the surrounding lots. I think it would more likely be her heirs, not Mary, who negatively influenced the property values. They began rampant selling of lots and blocks immediately after her death. Flooding the market was not a wise business move and one that Mary would have been too savvy to take part in

  2. $5M in 1925 is over $75M today -- seems like a lot for a "small plot".

    1. I don't know why the newspaper described it that way. The sale was for the block of land from 139th to 140th.

  3. Amazing that a large apartment house is demolished and replaced with a miserable suburban looking fast food franchise with parking lot and also an amazing story of a remarkable business women whose ungrateful heirs, although wealthy beyond their own imaginations after her death, were able to take control of their siblings (Julia's) inherited fortune with the help of her son and stop her from enjoying it as she saw fit. Seemed her only disagreeable quality was being strong willed and her sheer enjoyment in spending her own money, probably terrifying her greedy son that there wouldn't be any left for him. MS

    1. The apartment building is actually next to the McDonald's. It's called Warwick Court, 141 W 49th St.

    2. Yes, I lived there for many years.

  4. Another one bites the dust - this one really hurts because the house was in original condition surrounded by mature trees. Wish one of the heirs had insisted that the plot with the home remain intact as an historical treasure. Once again money and greed trump history. Great story - love Mary G. Pinckney! Thanks for a great post.

  5. You're right about the ultimate insult of a fast food restaurant ending up on this site now. No matter how many of these I read, I'm always especially dashed when that is the ending to a property with such a long history. My heart fell when I glimpsed the final photo in reading the paragraphs just proceeding it. (Sigh!)