Saturday, October 31, 2020

The Lost Peter Schermerhorn House - 6 Great Jones Street


from the collection of the Museum of the City of New York

Peter Schermerhorn was born in Stoutenburgh's (later renamed Hyde Park), New York on April 22, 1781.  He was one of six children born to Peter and Elizabeth Schermerhorn.  The family was one of the oldest and wealthiest in New York.  The first Schermerhorns were living in New Amsterdam by 1654. 

Peter joined his father's ship chandlery firm in 1802 at which point it was renamed Peter Schermerhorn & Son.  His brother, Abraham, joined the firm in 1808.  Following their father's death in 1809 they reorganized it as Schermerhorn & Co.

On April 5, 1804 Peter married Sarah Jones, the daughter of John and Eleanor Jones.   They purchased the former Robert Dickey mansion at No. 67 Greenwich Street.  Peter and Sarah would have six children, two of whom died in childhood.

In 1842 Peter began construction on a new residence at the corner of Great Jones and Lafayette Place in one of the most exclusive residential districts of the city.  Completed in 1843 it was a free-standing brick and brownstone mansion.  Its prim design featured a rusticated base where a short stoop led to a shallow portico capped by a swan's head pediment.  

Shortly after moving into the new town residence, Schermerhorn established a summer estate, "Belmont Farm," overlooking the East River around 84th Street.  He had purchased part of the land from John Hardenbrook in 1818 and added Sarah's portion of her father's country seat following his death.  

from the collection of the New York Public Library

Sarah Schermerhorn died in the Great Jones house on April 28, 1845.  Somewhat surprisingly, given his mother's recent death, William Colford Schermerhorn married Ann Elliott Huger Cottonet five months later, on September 24.  The couple took up residency with Peter.  William's unmarried brother, Edmund Henry, who was 30 years old at the time, also lived in the house.

Unlike his father and uncle, William went into law.  He was admitted to the bar in 1842 and eventually took over the management of the massive Schermerhorn estate.  

Peter Schermerhorn died in the Belmont Farm house on June 23, 1852.  The house on Great Jones Street was suddenly transformed into a social center.  

William Colford Schermerhorn Courtesy of the Lenox Library Association.

Ann Schermerhorn, like her husband's cousin Caroline Schermerhorn Astor, was determined to be a social leader.  In her 1868 book The Queens of American Society, Elizabeth Fries Ellet wrote, "Mrs. William Schermerhorn has given entertainments to the delight of the fashionable of New York.  She was Miss Continet [sic], and was remarkable for beauty and grace, and for the elegance of her reunions."

Her most notable "reunion" in the Great Jones house was her "bal costumé de rigueur" in 1854.  Six hundred invitations were sent out for the costume ball.  Guests were instructed that costumes of the court of Versailles during the reign of Louis XV were required.  Elizabeth Ellet recalled "The dresses, exclusive of jewelry, were said to have cost between forty and fifty thousand dollars; the jewelry over half a million."  Ann carried out the details of the theme as far as having period uniforms made for the servants and insisting that the gentlemen who attended shave off their beloved whiskers, moustaches and sideburns.

Newspapers were often critical of the ostentatious waste of the upper classes at a time when the city teemed with destitute citizens.  The New York Times was merciless in its ignominy.  "On Monday, the 27th of February, the new outbreak of folly came to its full manifestation," it said.  "Nobody...was admitted into the vast saloons of Mme. S., in Great Jones street, (which, when thrown together, are actually fifty feet in length!) whose ancestors had not, some fifty years before, industriously scrubbed, in person, the door steps of their own houses."

The article went on at length, ridiculing the wealthy.  In describing two 18th century style quadrilles, it called the dancers "heavy, clownish nabobs of Wall street," and said "It was more like a dance of some half domesticated bears than anything else; and even it ceased to be amusing after a time."

In 1860 William, Ann and their five children moved to an new house on West 23 Street, just west of Fifth Avenue.  Edmund Henry continued on in the family home.  

A life-long bachelor, Edmund lived off his inherited fortune.  He entertained in the Great Jones house, albeit not so lavishly as his sister-in-law.   Every gentleman of the 19th century kept a detailed diary, but the contents were private.  Subsequently they were routinely burned upon the death of their authors.  But in the 1930's the diaries of wealthy attorney George Templeton Strong were discovered and published.  In it he spoke of being invited to Edmund's home for an afternoon musicale which he deemed "very agreeable on the whole."

During the Civil War Congress passed a conscription act, creating the first war-time draft in United States history.  It provided a loophole for the wealthy in that exemptions could be purchased for $300--about $5,000 today--or they could pay for a substitute.  Not surprisingly, on September 4, 1864 the list of the "names of Patriotic Gentlemen who have furnished substitutes in advance of the draft" published in The New York Times included the Edmund H. H. Schermerhorn.

Edmund was a life-long member of the Emanuel Church, but a sermon by the Rev. E. H. Porter ended his church-going "very unexpectedly," as worded by The Telegraph.  The article said the rift was "all because the rector preached a sermon which did not suit him.  The sermon was aimed at men whose only object in life was to acquiring [sic] of wealth, and Mr. Schermerhorn had an idea that the discourse was a personal one."

In 1872, as commercial structures increasingly engulfed the neighborhood, Edmund left the Great Jones Street house.  The Schermerhorn family still owned the old Dickey mansion Peter Schermerhorn had purchased six decades earlier.  Somewhat surprisingly, Edmund commissioned architect Detlief Lienau (who had designed William's mansion on West 23rd Street) to remodel the vintage structure.

The Great Jones Street mansion that had been the scene of what one author described as "New York's most extravagant ball" became a rooming house and then the Law School of Columbia University.  It was almost lost on the Fourth of July, 1874, when fireworks landed on the roof and sparked a fire.

In 1877 William Schermerhorn demolished the old family home and hired eminent architect Henry J. Hardenberg to design a commercial structure on the site.  The magnificent Schermerhorn Building survives.

photo by Beyond My Ken

Disfigured -- The 1912 Horn & Hardart Building 1557-1561 Broadway


Hidden behind signage is what was once Manhattan's first automat.  via

As the turn of the last century approached, Longacre Square--long the center of New York City's carriage making industry--was quickly being transformed into its theater district.  But as late as 1906 the vehicular tradition lived on in the four-story building at No. 1557 Broadway which housed the McGiehan Manufacturing Co., makers of speedometers and odometers, and James F. Gombert which made carriage lamps.  Two years earlier the district had officially been renamed Times Square.  

In the meantime, Joseph Horn and Frank Hardart were changing the face of luncheonettes.  The men opened their first restaurant in Philadelphia on December 22 1888.  When “waiterless restaurants” began appeared overseas around the turn of the century, Frank Hardart traveled to Europe to see them in action.  Customers chose food items from glass-doored compartments, inserted a coin and removed the food.  The process required fewer personnel and, therefore, reduced prices.  Diners enjoyed quick service and inexpensive meals.

On February 25, 1911 the Real Estate Record & Builders' Guide reported "The work of demolishing the old buildings at Nos. 1557, 1559, 1561 and 1563 Broadway, between 46th and 47th sts., adjoining the Globe Theatre, was begun yesterday...and a 5-sty and basement fireproof restaurant and hotel will at once be erected on the site."

The proposed building would house a bachelor's hotel above a posh restaurant, The Cafe Napoleon.  The article noted that "the decorations, silverware, china and glassware will be of the Napoleonic period."  But the grand plans for the 70-foot wide plot somehow derailed.

By September the Philadelphia architectural firm of Stuckert & Sloane had filed plans instead for a three-story restaurant.  Property owner C. William Funk had leased the site to Horn & Hardart for its first New York City automat.  The projected cost was $80,000--or about $2.2 million today.

Completed in 1912, the neo-Classical style building was faced in gleaming terra cotta, its facade dominated by double-height openings.  Two arched entrances (one to a separate store space which provided additional income) flanked the main entrance within a 30-foot wide expanse of stained glass.  Designed by art glass artisan Nicola D'Ascenzo, it included a panel that read "Automat" in Art Nouveau style letters.  The openings of the third floor were also of stained glass.  Atop the cornice were four finial-like electric lamps.

original source unknown

Stuckert & Sloane carried the Art Nouveau motif of the glass signage into the dining room.  The marble bases of the columns morphed into colorful tiled tree trunks which spread flowers, fruits and vines along the beams and radiated out along the ceiling.  Crouching within the joints of the ceiling beams above each column were sculpted wood sprites or gnomes.  The decorative elements, including stained glass, reportedly cost the equivalent of more than a quarter of a million in today's dollars.

A post card reveals the mosaic floors, elaborate ceiling decorations, and the mahogany cabinetry and beveled glass mirrors that enframed the dispensing machines.  

The foreign concept of the automat prompted Architecture & Building to school its readers.  "For ordinary viands the proper coin is deposited in the slot and a turn of the knob throws open a door and within the compartment which is exposed the food is found."

But opening night had no "ordinary viands."  It was planned as a charity event by theater producer and director John Murray Anderson and actress Jenny Wren.  Instead of Horn & Hardart's home-made foods, the invited guests dropped their nickels into the slots to withdraw plates of caviar or smoked salmon supplied by society caterer Sherry's.  Dressed in evening clothes, the guests were entertained by music provided by Meyer Davis's orchestra.

The next day the automat opened for regular business, offering its more pedestrian fare.  Horn & Hardart would become well-known for dishes like Salisbury steak and gravy, macaroni and cheese, and its famed Boston pork and beans baked in their own earthenware crocks.  The firm's pastries were made on site--lemon meringue, cherry and apple pies, angel food or coconut layer cakes, and such.

The Evening World, July 1, 1912 (copyright expired)

In February 1914 architect John E. Kleist was commissioned to design a "steel sky sign," as described by the Record & Guide.  The large illuminated neon sign, which cost the equivalent of nearly $27,000 today, would be a familiar sight on Times Square for decades.

In 1916 the Horn & Hardart firm purchased the property it had been leasing for four years.  It would prove to be a very propitious decision.

Despite changing attitudes between management and workers, Horn & Hardart remained adamantly anti-union into the 1930's.  Frank Hardard, Jr. vocally expressed his disdain of organized labor, calling strikers "unscrupulous agitators" and characterizing unions as communistic.

Picket lines often deteriorated to battle lines during the Great Depression with tensions heightened.  On December 16, 1937 The New York Sun entitled an article "13 Pickets Jailed for Rioting" and reported on the melee in front of the Times Square Horn & Hardart.  "For three-quarters of an hour more than 100 pickets marched up and down in front of the restaurant, shouting and singing and trying to fight off a detail of thirty-six policemen sent to disperse them.  The demonstration ended in a free-for-all fight when the police began loading the pickets into patrol wagons."

from the collection of the New York Public Library

In February 1945, during World War II, the federal government instituted a nationwide curfew on nightclubs.  John "Ole" Olsen and Harold "Chic" Johnson were popular comedians whose act "Olsen and Johnson" had been drawing crowds since the days of vaudeville.  When the curfew was enacted they were playing nearby on Broadway.  

On February 28 The New York Sun reported "Deprived of the usual amusement places, Olsen and Johnson and more than 100 men and women in the cast of 'Laffing Room Only!' walked from the Winter Garden to the Automat at 1557 Broadway after their show last night...A large crowd was attracted both inside and outside of the big Automat by the presence of the performers, many of whom were in evening dress.  At the Automat it was reported today that a fine time was had by all, with Olsen and Johnson and members of their cast ad libbing over their coffee."

At the time of Olsen & Johnson's foray to the automat, the ground floor stained glass had been replaced with plate glass.  Life magazine, 1946.

The modernization of Stuckert and Sloane's classic facade began before mid-century when part of the stained glass was removed.  What remained was replaced with plate glass by architect John J. McNamara in 1957.

Changing times and the arrival of fast food chains in the 1960's prompted Horn & Hardart to react.  In 1968 the Times Square automat was granted a liquor license--a concept that would have shocked its patrons in 1912.

In 1973 the firm's president, Federick H. Guterman, addressed the problem of fast food chains with The New York Times journalist Glenn Collins.  "Mr. Guterman says the value of Horn & Hardart's real estate holdings is helping to buy time for a radical attempt to change the Horn & Hardart image, long associated in many people's minds with cavernous cafeterias filled by elderly people nursing cups of coffee."

Comparing the vast automat spaces to "big barns," Guterman suggested "We might have burger and brew, pizza and brew or a spaghetti operation.  We don't know yet."

Within four years the firm did know.  The Times Square location was converted to a Burger King franchise, still operated by Horn & Hardart.  On March 20, 1978 Matthew L. Wald, writing in The New York Times commented that "'Whopper' hamburgers have replaced such Horn & Hardart staples as baked beans."

Five years later journalist Robert F. Byrnes reminisced about No. 1557 Broadway in a New York Times article entitled "Thanksgiving Dinner at the Automat."  He remembered it as "A classy place.  All that Carrara marble and miles of patterned white tile, and the shiny chrome and the spotless plate-glass Automat-machine windows.  Pillars.  Elegant lamps on the ceiling.  You'd have to look hard to find a scrap of paper on the floor."  

But it was no longer hard to find a scrap of paper on the floor of No. 1557 Broadway.

photo via

Today any remnants of the once beautiful terra cotta facade are disfigured, covered by billboards.  Inside, however, traces of Stucker & Sloane's 1912 detailing survive if you look closely enough.

Thursday, October 29, 2020

The James A. Cowie House - 140 Ninth Avenue


By 1853 Henry Jarvis ran his fancy goods store at No. 120 Ninth Avenue (renumbered 140 in 1868).  He and his family lived in the three story building, as well, with two boarders, Abraham Coady, a carpenter, and Sophia Heney.  Jarvis's operation apparently went beyond simply selling ribbons and cloth, he advertised in The New York Herald on May 2, 1855: "Wanted--Two apprentices to the dressmaking and millinery [trade].  Apply in the store 120 9th avenue.  None but good sewers need apply."

Jarvis moved his store out in 1856 when the entire building was offered for rent.  An ad on April 14 noted it "would be let for $450."  (It was an affordable amount, equal to about $14,000 today.)

The fancy goods store became a confectionery shop, run by a quick succession of proprietors.  It was operated by Charles Clausen in 1857 and '58, George Lamb in 1859, William Toden in 1861 and '62, and in 1864 and '65 by Henry F. Balk.  

By the time Balk ran the candy store the house was owned by George W. Hyer and his wife, the former Catharine L. Gaffit,  who took in one boarder at a time.  Their tenant in the winter of 1865 was Charles F. Church who worked in the shoe factory of Henry McClellan downtown.  He went to work on Saturday, January 21, but would not return that night.

In the era before elevators freight was hoisted up through commercial buildings through hatchways--open shafts outfitted with a system of pulleys.  It was a dangerous system which resulted in repeated accidents and tragedies.  On January 23, 1865 The New York Times reported that Church "was killed on Saturday evening by falling through a hatchway on the fourth floor of No. 9 Ferry-street."  He died instantly.

George and Catharine Hyer had married in 1837.  The groom was 19-years old and the bride 17.  They had six children.   An active Mason, George earned his living as a "tooldresser."  He died on January 22, 1866 (coincidentally exactly one year and one day after his tenant had died).  He was just 49-years old.  The funeral was held in the house two days later.

Catherine lived on in the house, continuing to take in a boarder.  In 1867 it was Joseph R. Quick, a carpenter.  Around that time Cornelius B. Crist, who lived nearby on West 16th Street, was operating his butcher shop in the store.

James A. Cowie purchased the property from Catherine in 1870.  Cowie ran a fish and butcher shop on Eighth Avenue.  Born in 1844 he had "served in the Rebellion," as noted by the New York Herald, and had been a member of the Volunteer Fire Department.  As the Hyers had done, he and his wife, Margaret (known as Maggie), took in boarders.  In 1872 fireman John Vannorten lived with the couple and would remain for several years.

Cornelius Crist's butcher shop had become Margaret Lindsey's fancygoods store by 1872.  Margaret was a widow and unfortunately her enterprise did not succeed.  On September 25, 1873 an advertisement offered: "For Sale--Stock and Fixtures of a fancy store; three rooms; cheap rent; No. 140 Ninth avenue; will be sold cheap."

The Cowies welcomed a son, James, Jr., in the summer of 1875.  Tragically, eight months later, on December 12, his funeral was held in the house.  The following year the couple had another baby boy, this one, too, named James A. Cowie, Jr.  It may have been the presence of an infant in the house that prompted the Cowies to suddenly take in widows as their boarders.  Catharine Fyfe was here in 1876 and Margaret Corsa in 1878 and '79.  They possibly provided extra hands for the young mother.

Around 1878 Cowie moved his fish store to the shop next door, at No. 142 Ninth Avenue, while, oddly enough, leasing the store in his own building to Frank Schrader's grocery.  The ambitious Cowie had branched out by now.  He ran for political office and was elected to the assembly in 1884.

The family had a serious scare in 1891.  On July 30 The Evening World reported "The friends of ex-Alderman James A Cowie, of the Thirteenth Assembly District, were shocked this morning to learn that his life is despaired of.  They knew that Mr. Cowie was a sufferer from rheumatism, but they did not know until to-day that his malady had attacked the region of the heart, and that his attending physician holds out little hope of his recovery."  (The newspaper did not hide its partisan support of Cowie, saying he "has been the leader of the Republican opposition to wicked Fred Gibbs.")

Cowie recovered, but worse troubles for the family were on the near horizon.  In 1892 James, Jr., who was now 18, developed consumption, a condition recognized most often today as tuberculosis.  The New York Herald had an unexpected explanation for the disease, saying he was "taller than his father, who measures six feet, and the son's rapid growth had undermined his constitution."

The teen was sent to the Catskills for his health during the summer of 1893.  In the meantime Maggie fell "critically ill" as reported in the New York Herald.  James was brought home in September and confined to his bed.  His father ran again for assemblyman, but his campaign was conducted almost entirely without him as he cared for his wife and son.

The election was held on November 7.  "On election day, however, Mr. Cowie did not leave the bedside of his dying son, his brother-in-law Mr. Hyer, attending to the last details of the canvass," said a newspaper.  James A. Cowie, Jr. died that afternoon.  

The well-respected James A. Cowie, Sr. lived on in the house until his death on May 2, 1897.  The New York Herald called him "one of the most conspicuous figures in the old Ninth ward and said "his bitter struggles with [Frederick S.] Gibbs are still fresh in the memories of politicians."

The quaint little house and store continued its tradition of several residents upstairs and a small business at street level.  In the 1920's it held a grocery store and in the 1940's a delicatessen.  

A sign hawks the salads and sandwiches available in the deli around 1941.  Overhead a section of the 9th Avenue Elevated can be seen.  via the NYC Dept of Records & Information Services

The little building was lost to foreclosure during the Great Depression, and bought from the bank in June 1939 by Fred Cordes who paid $8,500--or about $156,000 today.

A renovation completed in 1972 resulted in a duplex apartment above the storefront.  

photographs by the author

Wednesday, October 28, 2020

Renwick & Sands' 1868 29 Howard Street

In 1859 the block of Howard Street between Broadway and Lafayette Street was lined with brothels, saloons and low-end rooming houses.  The two-story building at No. 29 was home to John Hanselman's "lager beer saloon and dwelling."   But change was on the horizon.

The following decades saw the old brick and frame buildings converted or demolished as the neighborhood transformed from residential to commercial.  In 1868 Edward Mathews purchased No. 29 and commissioned the architectural firm of Renwick & Sands to design a modern loft building on the site.

Completed within the year, a two-story cast iron base upheld three floor faced in gleaming white marble.  James Renwick, Jr. and Joseph Sands had created a striking structure which, while holding on to mid-Victorian decorative details like dripping garlands of fruits, was highly influenced by the new neo-Grec style.  Incised rosettes and geometric designs adorned the pilasters.   The extraordinary stylized capitals of the fifth floor were nearly whimsical, and the paired brackets joined by a single capital which upheld the cornice were equally unique.

Among the earliest tenants was Finlay, Gourlay & Finch, shirt makers.   Working conditions within the lofts were gruesome, especially in the summer months.  The finished shirts were sometimes soiled by the sweat of the workers and by the dust and grime that entered through the open windows.  Before they could be shipped to the retail stores, they were sent to the compahy's laundry in Jamesburg, New Jersey.  On August 12, 1872 the firm advertised for "Ironers on White Shirts--Laundry a short distance in the country."

Work in the steamy, hot atmosphere of a laundry was no less harsh than the in loft.  It appears that ironers quickly came and went, for nine months later in May 1873 the company advertised "Wanted At Once--six first class ironers, for Jamesburg Shirt Factory.  Apply to Finlay, Gourlay & Finch, 29 Howard st."

The two-story cast iron base is unique even in Soho.

Within the year the firm was reorganized and renamed Downs, Gourlay & Finch.  The new partner, Daniel H. Downs, wrote a check to himself in August 1873 for $1,000 (about $22,000 today).  But when he arrived at the Bowery National Bank he realized he had dropped it somewhere along the way.  He offered a $5 reward for its return in the newspapers; although the chances of that happening were most likely slim.

It happened again in February 1876.   The bookkeeper had earlier drawn a note payable to the firm, due six months later.  But when the date came no one could find it.  The firm placed an announcement in newspapers warning "All persons are hereby cautioned against negotiating a note drawn by Downs, Gourlay & Finch, payable to their own order six months after date; amount $1,200.22; dated August 23, 1875; mislaid, lost or stolen from their office."

The monetary hit could not have come at a worse time.  The Financial Panic of 1873 ruining banks and businesses and wiping out the personal fortunes of millionaires.  The firm reorganized again, now becoming simply George Gourlay.  But none of the efforts were enough.  On April 21 1878 the New York Herald reported that Gourlay was on the brink of bankruptcy.  "The family and friends of Mr. Gourlay have given him financial aid in order that he may make a settlement of fifty cents on the dollars in secured notes."

Trailing fruits and vegetables--even including ears of corn--adorn the cast iron columns.

The 1880's saw Gilbert Isaacs, clothing manufacturer; Stewart, Warren & Co., "manufacturing stationers;" and Wilken & Black, dealers in tailors' trimmings in the building.  

In 1888 Stewart, Warren & Co. became "unpleasantly familiar," as worded by The Evening Telegram, with a gang of forgers.  The article explained that the firm "does a very large check manufacturing business and have to be constantly on guard against these rogues."  A nicely dressed member of the gang would appear at an office and present a letter written on Stewart, Warren & Co. letterhead.  It "requested the loan of one of their blank checks as an order had come from another customer for just such checks on the same kind of paper, and the firm were entirely out of samples."  

Suspicions were raised in September when the bookkeeper of Heissenbottle, Nearing & Co. noticed that the firm's name was misspelled and refused to supply the check other than by mail.  "The fraud came out at once when inquiry was made," said The Telegram.  Stewart, Warren & Co. notified police headquarters that "check raisers were apparently planning a raid on some of their customers."  The article warned businessmen "Indications point to the existence of a gang of check forgers and raisers in this city who are laying in a stock of blanks as the first step toward getting ready for business."  The newspaper also warned the crooks.  "The police are prepared to deal with them."

Ely C. Carter, maker of lace curtains, was in the building in the mid-1890's.  It employed an all female staff.  Of its 29 workers, 10 were under 21-years old and one under 16.  They worked a 54-hour week.

The last of the apparel companies in No. 29 was forced to find new accommodations when the entire building was leased by the S. Orchman Trunk Co. in September 1915.   The Great Depression years saw John Reiner & Co., dealers in industrial and construction equipment, here from 1933 through 1937.

Other tenants included the envelope maker Anca Printing Co., here by 1950; and the Empire Belt & Novelty Co. in 1955.

The upper floors were converted to "joint living/working quarters for artists" in 2003, one per floor.  The storefront became home to the Ralo Tibet Carpet store, which remained until around 2014.  In 2018 the art gallery BDDW opened here.

photographs by the author

Tuesday, October 27, 2020

The Eleazar Parmly House - 137 East 27th Street


In the early 1850's attractive brick-faced residences rose along East 27th Street, between Lexington and Third Avenues.  The owner of No. 83 East 27th Street (renumbered 137 in 1868) was taking in boarders by 1853 when Peter Mead and Frederick Somers, both printers located in the Bible House, and policeman Daniel Vandewater listed their addresses here.

On August 22, 1855 an advertisement appeared in the New-York Daily Times offering:

Small Cottage House for Sale--In 27th-st, near Lexington av.  The house is three stories, basement and sub cellar, and built in the best masonry; has all the modern improvements, and is in every respect desirable for a small family.  Price $5,700, which includes gas fixtures and furnace.

At the time Dr. Eleazar Parmly and his family lived at No. 1 Bond Street.  His dental office was also in the house, which sat within what was known the Bond Street District.  It had been among the most exclusive residential neighborhoods in New York in the 1830's.  Now, however, it was the center of Manhattan's dental district.  While Parmly kept his office in the Bond Street house, he moved his family to East 27th Street.

In 1895 America's Successful Men of Affairs would remember Parmly as "the father of American dentistry."  Born on a farm in Braintree, Vermont on March 13, 1797, he had shown remarkable intelligence and capability early in his life.  At the age of 16 he passed the examination for the position of district school teacher so successfully that the School Board voted him extra pay.  After just one year of teaching he went to Montreal where he worked in a newspaper office.

Shortly afterward, he moved to Boston where his brother, Levi S. Parmly, was a dentist and through him "acquired a thorough knowledge of the professional."  The brothers went into partnership as itinerate dentists, traveling from city to city in the South.  

America's Successful Men of Affairs recounted a story from that period to illustrate Parmly's "character and determination."  He was escorting a lady to her home after attending a ball and was jostled by a young man "prominent in local society."  The article said "Dr. Parmly did not submit tamely to this insult.  He was tall, athletic, and finely proportioned, and the aggressor received a severe blow in punishment."

He was handed a written challenge the next day by a friend of the young man.  Parmly said "You are as well aware as I am that your friend's conduct was unwarranted and unjustifiable.  By bringing me this note, you have made yourself a participator in his insolence.  I propose to thrash you with your own cane, and if your friend will call I'll thrash him also, after which I am entirely willing to fight a duel with him."

Parmly then grabbed the man's cane, "administered a sound drubbing, and put him out of the house."  Justice and chivalry were far different in the 1810's and he after his arrest on charges of assault, the judge "looked admiringly at him, patted him on the shoulder and said, 'Young man, you did right.  You are perfectly safe in this city from this time.'"

In 1821 Parmly and his brother went to Europe where they studied under the most famous dental surgeons of Paris and London.  Parmly arrived in New York in 1823 and "for a half a century stood at the head of his profession in the metropolis," according to America's Successful Men of Affairs.

He married Ann Maria V. Smith on August 22, 1827, and they had five children who survived to adulthood--Anna, Alexander Ehrick (who went by his middle name), Mary, Julia and Louisa.  Ehrick followed in his father's footsteps, graduating with high honors from the New York College of Dental Surgery in Syracuse in March 1851.  And like his father, he then spent about a year in Paris "industriously pursuing a course of medical and surgical studies," according to the American Journal of Dental Science in 1853.

Dr. Eleazar Parmly around 1850.  via

Around the time his father purchased the 27th Street house, Ehrick married Lucy Dubois, of Montbeliard, France.  Both he and his father were artistically as well as medically inclined.  A talented poet, Eleazar wrote his autobiography in verse.  Ehrick was a musician who offered his services to the Oceanic Presbyterian Church, of which he was the treasurer and a trustee.

Despite what America's Successful Men of Affairs called Eleazar's "large income," he and Ann Maria took in boarders.  Martin Wilbur, a streetcar conductor, remained through 1859.  Their other boarder in 1856 was Joseph Wordsdell, a cabinetmaker.

Although he retained possession of the house, Parmly was no longer listed at the address in 1861.  Surprisingly, Frederick Somers, who had lived here as early as 1853, was back with his family.  His son, Frederick D. Somers, was earning a living as a clerk.  Also renting rooms were artist Theodore L. Angerstein and William Foster, a mason.

In 1864 Parmly leased the house to Aaron Rutherford and his wife, Margaret.  Rutherford ran a provisions business on East 27th Street.  The couple apparently considered moving out in the spring of 1869, when an advertisement in the New York Herald offered "To Let--Completely furnished, the three story high stoop brick House, 137 East Twenty-seventh street, with all modern improvements."  The asking rent was $1,800 a year, or about $3,000 per month today.

But instead a deal was worked out and in March 1870 Eleazar Parmly transferred title to the house to Margaret Rutherford.  (Deeds were commonly placed in the wife's name in the 19th century, assuring her of financial stability in the case of her husband's death.)

The Rutherfords housed boarders, as well.  In the spring of 1880 they took in a young father, 27-year old R. S. Checkley, and his three year old daughter, Lilly.  Checkley's story was striking.

Four years earlier, just as he was about to graduate from medical school, he took on the case of 41 year old Adelaide E. Swett.  He explained later that she "was a lady of some means, but a confirmed invalid, having been given up by several physicians."  He was convinced he could help her, or at least prolong her life for several years.

The Sun reported on June 15, "To begin with, he married her."  But four years later he was informed that she was already married, and so he left her and came to New York.  He explained, according to The Sun, "The reason why he took the child with him was that its mother persisted in feeding it on medicated food when the child stood in no need of it.  Besides, he was very much attached to it, and could not bear to part with it."

Adelaide had no intention of parting with the child, either.  She arrived in New York in May with a warrant for her husband's arrest on a charge of abandonment.  She searched for three weeks before spotting him on the street.  She grabbed a policeman, saying "I want you to arrest that man.  He is my husband, and he has run away from me for another woman."

R. B. Checkley was taken in.  At the stationhouse he was forced to reveal Lilly's location.  Adelaide rushed to No. 137 East 27th Street and came back with her daughter.  The following day in court she said she would not press charges.  "She had secured the child, and that, it seems, was all she wanted."

On the evening of June 11 Adelaide and the toddler boarded the steamboat Narragansett headed back to Boston.  The vessel was on the Long Island Sound when it collided with the steamer Stonington.  The following day the Memphis Daily Appeal reported "the present report is that the Narragansett took fire and sunk."   At least 83 fatalities had been confirmed at the time.

On June 20 The Sun reported "Among the victims of the disaster was Mrs. R. S. Checkley, of Boston."  As the Narragansett burned, "a lifeboat manned by men who in the excitement had forgotten to take any oars aboard, floated under the stern of the sinking vessel.  There, by the light of the fire, a woman was discovered on her back upon the surface of the water, with a little child riding upon her breast."

The two were Adelaide and Lilly.  They were both alive and pulled into the lifeboat.  The article said "Mrs. Checkley was exhausted and almost unconscious.  When she found herself aboard the boat she thought she had been rescued without her child, and after moaning some tender words about her 'lost baby' she died."  Checkley received a telegram at the 27th Street house on Sunday, informing him of the tragedy.  "He took the next train for Boston, and by this time he is on his way back in the undisputed possession of his child," said the article.

The following year the Rutherfords moved to Irvington, Iowa and sold the house to De L'Orme Knowlton for $5,000--just under $130,000 today.  He resold it in 1886 to Cacielle Stein for twice the amount he had paid.   She hired architect H. Simberlund to enlarge the house to the rear in May 1887 with a two-story addition.  

Cacielle Stein retained possession of the house into the 20th century, renting rooms to blue collar tenants like Joseph Pierro who endured the embarrassment in 1902 of having his name published for owing "noncollectable" property taxes dating back to 1899.

In 1920 the owners called themselves a "Christian business couple" in their advertisement to rent three rooms at $25 rent (about $320 per month today).

The house was converted to one apartment per floor above a store in the former basement in 1941.  The stoop was removed and all traces of Victorian detailing were removed.  The building was used by a variety of businesses throughout the 20th century—in the 1950's the Helen Goodman Gallery was here, as well as the Davenport Theatre.  In 1956 the first and second story apartments were combined into one duplex.

Seth Ryan lived in the building in 1960.   On January 26 the 21-year old and two friends, Hugh Bruce and Gilbert Demillo went to a rally of 8,000 persons in Union Square who were protesting Nazism and anti-Semitism.  But they were not there to lend support.  At around 7:30, as Rabbi Harold Maraleck was speaking to survivors of Nazi concentration camps, the young men shouted "Heil Hitler" and gave the Nazi salute.  They were arrested and held in $15,000 bail each, charged with disorderly conduct.

Today the masonry of the venerable Parmly house is painted and the former English basement could best be described as an eyesore.  But the stories that have played out within its walls are fascinating.

photographs by the author

Monday, October 26, 2020

The 1887 Robert E. Walsh House - 142 West 95th Street


As he often did, developer William J. Merritt acted as his own architect when he planned the row of houses on the south side of West 95th Street between Columbus and Amsterdam Avenues in 1886.  And as he was also known for doing, his 18-foot wide homes, completed in 1887, were designed for upper-middle-class families.

Merritt's somewhat quirky row was designed in the up-to-date Queen Anne style.  Clad in brick with stone trim, the three-story houses did not happily co-exist, but fought one another for attention.  When The Architectural Record critic Montgomery Schuyler reviewed the row, he likened it to the "reign of terror."

Merritt gave No. 142 a cottage-like feel.  A dog-legged stoop faced in rough cut brownstone led to the narrow double doored entrance.  Between it and the parlor window a terra cotta held an elaborate Celtic knot of leaves and bands.   Above a thin course of stone, the second and third floors rose to a faux gable decorated in checkerboard tiles.

An advertisement in the New York Herald on March 13, 1887 described the house as a "lovely Queen Anne" dwelling "decorated, papered, &c."  The advertised price was $15,000, or about $416,000 in today's money.  

Merritt apparently did not find his buyer, but leased the house.  And his price dropped just a bit five years later when the owners offered it at $14,500.  On March 31, 1892 it sold (although under asking price, at $14,250) to Robert E. Walsh and his wife, Annie.

The outline of the original window is evident.  It is hard to imagine that two entrance doors originally filled the doorway.

Upper-middle class families spent, if not the entire summer season, a few weeks each year at resorts.  Robert and Annie were on Fire Island at the fashionable Surf Hotel in 1894.  He was on the committee in charge of the "grand final ball" of the season that year.  On August 26 The New York Times promised "The famous old hostelry, cottages, and grounds, as well as the yachts and launches at anchor, are to be gayly decorated; Greek fire is to blaze here and there; the hotel orchestra is to be increased by several musicians from New-York, and altogether, the season is to be closed in the gayest possible fashion."

The Walshes escaped the city heat and humidity at the Surf Hotel.  from the collection of the Library of Congress

Annie's widowed mother, Amelia Morton, moved into the 95th Street house at some point.  She died there on June 5, 1899.

Robert and Annie Walsh remained in the 95th Street house for more than a decade.   On March 6, 1907 The New York Press reported that Walsh had sold it and "the buyer will occupy the house."  A month later, on April 15, an on-site auction was held of the Walsh household furnishings.  The listing hints at the couple's comfortable home environment.  Among the items to be sold were "fine mahogany and gold Parlor Furniture and Cabinets, Marbles, Bronzes and Bric-a-Brac, Oil Paintings, Etchings and Engravings, Fine Draperies and Curtains throughout the house."

Although he had announced he would occupy No. 142 as a private home, it appears the new owner operated it as a boarding house.  Living here in 1916 was Dennis Manning.  He was among the five passengers riding in Irving Farian's automobile on the New Rochelle Road near the Pelham Bay Bridge in the early hours of September 23 that year.  

Given the timing, it is probably that the men had been drinking.  Farian drove the car into a telegraph pole and then into a tree.  It was a horrific accident, resulting in two men dead.  Manning was somewhat fortunate in that he was thrown from the vehicle, receiving only cuts and bruises.  Farian was held on a charge of homicide.

In the early 1940's the parlor window, stoop and gable tilework were all intact.  via the NYC Dept of Records & Information Services

Colorful residents in the mid-1920's were the Rush family.  They advertised the address as the Riverside Spiritualist Church and touted young Harold Rush as "The Noted Boy Medium."  An advertisement in the Long Island Daily Press on December 14, 1927 announced "Message Services daily" at 2:30 and 8:00 p.m. and private readings every day from 2:00 through 10:00.

By 1931 No. 142 was run as a rooming house, the tenants of which were not always upstanding.  On April 21, 1931 the Standard Union reported that a taxi driver, Harry Kirschner, had picked up Vicco Anderson and Kai Wolffeld on 57th Street.  Both were tenants at No. 142 West 95th Street.

The men's behavior raised his suspicions by the time they reached Jackson Heights and he pulled over, saying he would not take them any further.  "One of the men, according to the taxi driver, pointed a gun at him and made him leave his cab after they had taken $7," said the article.  They hailed another cab and headed to the elevated train station.

Kirschner's shouts for help alerted Police Officer Patrick J. Shea  "who leaped on a private car and caught the two men after a few blocks' chase," said the Union Standard.  As Shea opened the cab door, Wolffeld's gun "was accidentally discharged" and burned his face.  Anderson was charged with having a length of rubber hose in his pocket and Wolffeld for gun possession.

As it turned out both men were sailors who, said the Daily News two weeks later "abandoned the bounding billows for paved streets and attempted to smooth their path via the gun."  Their $7 heist (about $118 today) landed both of them in prison, sentenced to two to four years each.

By mid-century the former Walsh house was neglected.  It sat vacant until being sold to Joseph Fish in June 1951.  But a new owner did not mean better days were ahead.  In the 1960's the house was appropriated by the city and in November 1967 was one of sixteen structures "designated for rehabilitation" and offered for sale.

Two renovations followed, one completed in 1975 and another in 2007.  The beleaguered and missing terra cotta tiles of the top floor were replaced with a panel simulating brownstone with a daisy relief appropriate to the Queen Anne architecture.  The damaged or lost stoop was also replaced.  Today there is a total of three apartments in the building, one in the basement, and two duplexes.

photographs by the author