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 thefamilyparmelee.com

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


  1. Replies
    1. The $1,800 is the yearly rent and I divided it to make it more understandable to 21st century readers who think of rent in monthly figures. Sorry for the confusion.