He’s cut quite the figure for more than a century, standing alone in Trinity churchyard. Hamilton – just steps away – is who everyone seems to come for, but then are all drawn to the large bronze looming to the left. All lawyer robe and courtroom wig turned away to face Broadway. Not a hint of flesh from here – even his hands are hidden within the solid profile. We’ll have to go around front to meet him.
But it’s here at the back of the granite base that we first learn about John Watts: last Royal Recorder of the City of New York, member of the New York State Assembly and of the 3rd U.S. Congress, and first judge of Westchester County. The only official to have served New York on both sides of the Revolution – quite the accomplishment.
As we circle around to meet the man, we find his face literally surrounded by the trappings of his office. The ruffled shirt rises to his chin; the edge of his wig frames a furrowed brow. An aging face stares ahead, through the trappings, past us, lost in worried thought.
John should feel at home here at Trinity. After all, he lived just down the block. And as a young man, seven years before the Revolution, he delivered the King’s College valedictory address just a stone’s throw away inside the church.
But there’s something about the look on John’s face that belies comfort. His is not an expression that conveys the easy confidence of a man of his accomplishments. So what’s up? Consider the judge’s hands. His left poised on his hip in an almost haughty manner while his right hangs at his side, perhaps pulled down by the weight it carries – a half-unfurled scroll.
Through the green patina we can just make out “Founder and Endower of the Leake and Watts Orphan Home.” Heavy stuff indeed, but why? And who’s Leake?
John Watts’s resume on the granite base does not list his tribulations. Those are clearly etched in his face. His father, branded a Loyalist, lost the family estate when John was young. On a more personal level, Watts saw the death of his wife and ten of their eleven children. And what transpired in the late 1820s – losing a friend and a child to death and perceived betrayal and death again – surely added to his woes.
John Leake, prominent New York attorney, was a close friend of the judge. When he passed without heirs, he left a considerable fortune to Robert Watts, the judge’s youngest son-with the proviso that he change his surname to “Leake.” Robert’s acceptance of the will’s conditions did not sit well with his father.
To add injury to insult, the boy’s death a short time later resulted in the father inheriting the son’s oddly acquired fortune. A bit awkward to say the least, and the judge struggled with how to handle it.
Remembering that Leake had discussed the idea of founding one of the country’s first private charitable institutions dedicated to children’s welfare, John Watts did just that. In 1831 the Leake and Watts [and Leake!] Orphan House was born.
Sculptor George Bissell has captured a meaningful, personal moment in Judge Watts’s rich public life. He’s just read the charter and stands there contemplating its meaning – for New York’s orphans, of course, but for his own journey as well.
After all, how does one measure success? A large estate on the upper east side? A townhouse on lower Broadway? A list of laudable public achievements? Loyal family and friends? These thoughts must have concerned him to the very end.
The monument to John Watts was given by his grandson, John Watts DePeyster, more than fifty years after the judge’s passing. The judge raised young DePeyster after his mother (the judge’s youngest daughter) had passed.
DePeyster’s tribute to his loving grandfather brings the dynamics of family relationships full circle. Take that WattsLeake!
How beautiful that John DePeyster has offered such a positive response to questions his grandfather must have carried to this very grave. And how incredible that Leake & Watts continues its mission of support 185 years later.
In 1843, the Leake and Watts Orphan House moved into its own building up on 112th Street. And while John Watts did not live to see that happen, the building and the organization are still very much alive. The building is the oldest on Morningside Heights and currently houses the Textile Conservation Laboratory for the Cathedral Church of St. John the Divine. The Cathedral purchased the 13-acre site in 1888 (for $880,000), and Leake and Watts moved north once again, this time to a farm in Yonkers. Leake & Watts currently provides services to more than eight thousand children in the Bronx, Manhattan, and Westchester County.
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