EXHIBITION: Watson House

Facing New York harbor and Staten Island, and across from Battery Park, Watson House is one of the very few colonial buildings still standing in the City of New York. The front columns built from ship masts were expressive of the successive sea merchant owners, starting with import/exporter and civic leader, James Watson. He purchased the site at 6 State Street in 1793 and built a federal-style house for himself and his wife Mary the following year. When Watson died in 1805, Moses Rogers, merchant and sugar refiner, purchased the house and the number changed to No. 7 State Street. Roger’s wife Sarah Woolsey’s brother was President Timothy Dwight of Yale; and Rogers’s sister married shipping magnate, Archibald Gracie, whose spacious home on the northeast side of Manhattan became known as Gracie Mansion, now the official Mayor’s residence. Watson House is a city landmark, and part of the National Register of Historic Places.

The United States government used 7 State Street during the Civil War; however, the tradition that the house was used as a stop on the Underground Railroad is not verified. In the years after Civil War, the Harbor’s Pilot Commissioners made their headquarters at 7 State Street and an Irish woman named Charlotte Grace O’Brien, disturbed at the plight of emigrating women came to New York City with an idea to create a home for Irish immigrant women situated near the harbor.

Support from the Catholic clergy enabled Rev. John J. Riordan to purchase Watson House from Isabella Wallace, on December 4, 1885, and to establish the Home of the Mission of Our Lady of the Rosary for the Protection of Irish Immigrant Girls. Today, Watson House is a New York city landmark, and part of the National Register of Historic Places.

Saint Elizabeth Ann Bayley Seton
(1774-1821) founder of the Sisters of Charity and the first native born US citizen to become canonized, lived at the site of the Shrine Church at 8 State Street, next door. During the time that her physician father, Dr. Richard Bayley, worked at the Bedloes Island Quarantine Hospital, St. Elizabeth Ann wrote a prescient observation in 1801 to her sister-in-law, Rebecca Seton, about a vessel in New York Harbor with sick immigrant Irish aboard:

“…there is one vessel of Irish emigrants just opposite the door who had a hundred sick passengers to land which they are doing as fast as possible and we are not suffered to go further than the gate for fear of contracting the ship’s fever.”