The last house left on State Street’s mansion row

State Street is a short downtown stretch with a gentle curve along Battery Park that ends at the foot of Broadway.

Today, one side is lined with glass box buildings that serve the interests of the Financial District; it’s overrun with tourist buses.

But in the late 18th century, State Street had an entirely different feel.

Running along the waterline of Lower Manhattan, it was the city’s most desirable mansion row.

More than 200 years later, only one of those mansions still stands: the James Watson House, built in 1793.

James Watson was a Federalist and the first speaker of the New York State Assembly. He was rich, too; he made his money in imports and exports.

Like other members of the wealthy merchant class, he built himself a home befitting his status.

This was no shoddyite palazzo though. Elegant and in the fashionable Georgian style, according to the Guide to New York City Landmarks, Watson’s home gives us an idea of how the upper class lived in the postcolonial city.

As always, location mattered. With its proximity to the harbor, residents would have remarkable water views. And while the heat baked the rest of the city, the Watsons could open their enormous windows and catch the breeze.

Not only that, but the house was close enough to the harbor so that Watson could keep an eye on his shipping interests, according to nyc-architecture.com.

In 1806, Watson sold his house to merchant and sugar refiner Moses Rogers. It was Rogers who added the Federal-style two-story curved portico, which followed the curve of State Street.

Imagine the loveliness of overlooking the harbor out on that portico. Those impressive columns were likely made from ship masts, states a 1965 Landmarks Preservation Commission report.

As the 19th century continued, State Street remained fashionable.

Robert Fulton bought a mansion here in 1808, and Herman Melville was born around the corner in 1819 on Pearl Street.

By the mid-1800s, though, State Street was changing. (See third image, from 1859.)

Landfill turned the Battery into a recreational area that drew crowds. And when Castle Garden went from concert hall to an immigrant depot center in 1855, the mansions became boarding houses.

In 1888 (fourth image), the Watson House was now the Mission of Our Lady of the Rosary, which aided Irish immigrant women.

A remaining building next door (seen above in 1920 and in 1936) was bulldozed decades later, and on the site rose Our Lady of the Rosary Catholic church in 1964.

In the 1960s, the Watson house was restored to its original 18th century beauty. Today, it stands out amid the street’s banking industry glass boxes, a relic of a gentler era.

It’s not a house these days but a shrine to Elizabeth Seton, the first saint born in America and a former resident of State Street. Seton lived on the other side of the Watson house as a child in the 1770s.

[Fourth image: Valentine’s Manual, 1859; fifth image: King’s Handbook, 1892; sixth image: MCNY, 1920: X2010.18.252; sixth image, 1926, LOC]

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12 Responses to “The last house left on State Street’s mansion row”

  1. keenanpatrick424 Says:

    Diocese of N.Y. paying taxes on property?

  2. Mykola (Mick) Dementiuk Says:

    A small plaque on Pearl St notes the Herman Melville site, it was difficult to spot in the early 1980s, most likely impossible to make out with security around everywhere nowadays.

  3. Tommy Dulski Says:

    That church went up in 1964? I thought it was WAY OLDER.

    • Greg Says:

      I realize now that I was unconsciously confused by the whole thing. It all seemed to be one structure, and yet a prominent Catholic structure in the Federal style is highly unusual to say the least.

    • Lady Feliz Says:

      Yes, it actually dates to 1964. It was built to look much older than it actually is, likely so it fits in more with its neighbor next door.

  4. Dymoon Says:

    Reblogged this on dymoonblog and commented:
    There is something about this house that speaks volumes, it radiates a positive vibe. I hope it stands for a long time

  5. David H Lippman Says:

    There used to be an original Type 24 Bishop’s Crook lamppost on State Street, but I believe it’s gone.

  6. roninjax Says:

    Beautiful house and wonderful background information. It remains a gem today against the backdrop of modern life. I’m glad it remains.

  7. Tom B Says:

    Thanks for this blog. We first came upon these buildings in August 2001 while walking around the Battery after Ellis Island. I was amazed it survived the Developers the last 100 years. I figured E. Seton founded Seton Hall, wrong. You can easily see these two landmarks in movie shots. We had no idea of its history. When we got our pictures back in mid September that whole skyline was changed.

    • ephemeralnewyork Says:

      Thanks Tom, always good to see you in the comments section and find out what has caught your eye on your trips to NYC.

  8. Russ H Says:

    My wife and I were married here in 1978. The pastor (Fr. Brown?) told us it was they hadn’t had a wedding there for a long time.

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