Urban Harlem surrounds a 19th century mansion
When the Watt-Pinkney mansion was built on a small hill in early 19th century Harlem, this white beauty with the mansard roof and two-story columns was part of a vast colonial-era farm owned by John De Lancey.
This was the countryside, of course. The city of New York barely extended past Houston Street at the time.
The farm grew corn and potatoes, and the little hill sloped down to a pasture, which bordered the salt marshes of the Harlem River.Changes came as the 19th century went on. The house was moved to the bottom of the hill so the city could lay out Seventh Avenue and 139th Street.
Elevated trains were extended to Harlem, bringing new residents, commerce, and industry. Parts of the “ancient manor,” as it was called by one newspaper, were carved up and sold off.
The salt marshes were filled in. By the early 1900s, apartment buildings began encircling the estate, between Seventh and Eighth Avenues and 139th and 140th Streets.
Pinkney was the stepdaughter of Archibald Watt, a Scottish immigrant who came to New York in the 1820s. He married Pinkney’s widowed mother, whose deceased husband came from a wealthy Maryland family.
Watt believed that one day, the entire city would span the island of Manhattan. So he bought as much property as he could, including the De Lancey farm and its mansion.
When the Panic of 1837 hit, the ambitious Watt ran into financial trouble.
To help, Pinkney loaned him money from her inheritance, and in turn, “Watt taught her how to manage the estate,” the Times wrote in a 1908, “and at his death left her the whole of it, on condition that she would share it liberally with the other heirs.”
Watt died in 1843; Pinkey’s mother died in 1883. They and other Watts were buried in the family plot near the house.
Pinkney herself never married. By 1900, she was the only immediate family member left.
“In the old ‘White House’ she has spent her summers for half a century, growing vegetables for her own table on land so valuable that the price of a head of lettuce would probably amount to $5 or more if the interest on the investment were figured out,” wrote the New York Times in 1907.
“For a number of years, Miss Pinkney was well known in the real estate business, having managed the large estate of her stepfather, Archibald Watt, after his death, and she became a noted figure in New York’s real estate development by her shrewd financing of her vast holdings.”
Within a few years, the heirs she was asked to share her fortune with put the property up for sale. The remains of family members buried in the Watt burial ground dug up and reinterred in Woodlawn Cemetery, where Pinkney was laid to rest as well.
The estate sold fast to developers, and the house itself was gone in the 1920s—one of the last remnants of the remote village of Harlem before it was subsumed by New York City.
[Top photo: MCNY, 1910, x2010.11.6379; second image: painting of the Watt-Pinkney mansion, undated; third photo: MCNY, 1900, x2010.11.6380; fourth photo: MCNY, 1910, x2010.11.6359; fifth photo: MCNY, 1910, x2010.11.6358; sixth photo: MCNY, 1910, x2010.11.6383; seventh image: Los Angeles Times, 1908; sixth photo: MCNY, 1910, x2010.11.6361; eighth photo: MCNY, 1910, x2010.11.6377]