Saturday, April 13, 2013

Miss Keller's School-- Nos. 35-37 East 62nd St.



photo by Alice Lum
Unlike many turn-of-the-century women who opened exclusive private schools, Eleanor L. Keller was democratic in her approach.   When she opened Miss Keller’s School at No. 25 West 55th Street in 1900 she surprisingly admitted boys as well as girls; although her focus was clearly on the privileged young females.

She blanketed periodicals that year with advertisements announcing to wealthy parents that her school was open for business.  “For Girls, Complete Course, Kindergarten to College.  For Boys, thorough grounding in Elementary Branches.  Both courses combined with Manual Training.  Large Playground,” said the ad in Harper’s Magazine in May 1900.

Three years later she was ready to expand.  S. Fisher Johnson was selling two brownstone-fronted houses at Nos. 35 and 37 East 62nd Street.  Earlier The New York Times had deemed No. 35 a “handsome dwelling.”  The residences were slightly narrower than the average building lot—just 20 feet each—but the combined frontage would be impressive.

On March 1, 1903 Eleanor Keller purchased the two houses and contracted her Connecticut-based uncle, architect George Keller, to design her new school building.   Construction began in 1904 and was completed within the year.

The seven-story structure announced to the parents of potential students that this was no average school.  Keller produced a neo-Renaissance building that, while admittedly institutional, was refined and dignified.  A two-story limestone base with three prominent arched openings supported the brick upper stories.  The arched motif was echoed by graceful arcades at the third and sixth floors and a brick-and-terra-cotta corbel table at the fifth.  Below the deeply overhanging cornice was a loggia supported by Doric columns.

The upper loggia, once open, has been glassed closed -- photo by Alice Lum
Recent writers insist on calling Eleanor’s school “Miss Keller’s School for Girls;” yet there were clearly both sexes enrolled.  The school stationery was imprinted “Miss Keller’s School” and the yearly rolls show both boys and girls here.

Unlike most of the strait-laced women who ran private schools, Eleanor Keller was open to educational advances.  In 1907 she attended a performance of “The Prince and the Pauper” at the Lyceum Theater staged by the Educational Theatre for Children and Young People.   At a time when live theater was viewed by many as wicked, sinful and a threat to impressionable young minds, Eleanor recognized its potential as a learning tool.

She wrote to the director, Alice Minnie Herts on November 3 saying “It is impossible for me to tell you how deeply impressed we all were by your pupils’ performance…It has been truly said by a great psychologist that there should be a stage in every school.  By studying, interpreting and acting a range of parts, moral and spiritual principles are best taught.”
Keller outlined arches and framed openings with grey brick to add contrast to the buff colored brick -- photo by Alice Lum
The grand building envisioned by Eleanor and realized by her uncle may have been just a bit too ambitious.   In 1911 she lost the building to foreclosure.  But it was quickly snatched up.

The American Art Annual reported “In August the building at 35 East Sixty-second Street was purchased to serve as a home and club centre for art students.”  The buyer was the Studio Club of New York which promised musical recitals, “May Day exhibits and Christmas sales.”

The club, which had been organized in 1906 for aspiring female artists and musicians, now boasted three hundred members.  Its chairman, Mrs. Stephen, not only managed the organization and its activities, but lived in the building along with resident students.

A year earlier The Survey remarked “This club is more than an artists’ club; it is a unique social movement which was started scarcely four years ago by a small group of active and sincere women.

“Young art students—painters, sculptors, musicians, come to New York, full of life, hope and ambition, anxious to fit themselves to do their part in the creation of all those things which make life beautiful and worth the living…The Studio Club is for just such girls.  It aims to supply the home and social influences necessary to the art students’ proper development and to give them contact with other lines of effort.”

The club continued unwaveringly and nearly a decade later, on February 15, 1920, the New-York Tribune reported “Many of the feminine migrants live at the Studio Club of New York, at 35 East Sixty-second Street, in the heart of exclusive New York clubdom, bounded on the east by the Colony Club and on the west by the Knickerbocker Club itself.  It relieves the extreme severity of that fashionable high-brow block to have hundreds of girls, many of them very pretty indeed, passing along the sober pavement, and the monotonous reserve of the East Sixties is shattered by the vocalization of many student songbirds.”

A month later stage actress Grace Elliston joined the faculty here.  The Tribune, noting that she “has not been seen on the stage for several seasons,” said she “has undertaken to contribute her share toward bettering conditions of living and of work for young girls just beginning their careers on the stage and in the art and music world, and is the director of the Studio Club.”

Before she started the new assignment, Elliston told her friend Ethel Barrymore about it.   The iconic actress was thrilled and replied “Do you remember where we had to live when we were beginning on the stage—those dreadful theatrical lodgings in the West Thirties?  Why didn’t horrible things happen to us?  Why didn’t somebody start a studio club for us?  I know just why you want to direct that club.”

Elliston explained to the press “Since the war cut off opportunities for study in Europe the students have poured into New York by thousands.  It is hard for them to find suitable places to live.  The Studio Club tries to give them an attractive clubhouse, where they can meet their own friends and also be brought in contact with distinguished artists in the professions for which they are studying.”

One resident study, Grace F. Field decided in 1925 that her potential concert singing career was more attractive than her married life and filed for an annulment of her marriage to R. Lee Field.  Miss Field, whom The New York Times said was a “member of a prominent family of Macon, Georgia,” provided the judge with an astounding story as to how she happened to become married.

She said that in the summer of 1921 she met Field and he visited at her home.  She told the court that “she refused to marry him because she had just reached the age of 19, while he was two years older, and also because her father objected to it.”  According to her testimony when she boarded the train back to college in September, he followed her and produced a marriage license.

When she rebuffed him, he said that if they did not get married “the authorities would say he had committed fraud by getting [the license] under false pretences and not using it, and that we both might be put in jail.  I didn’t know how long it might be for and he frightened me beyond anything,” she said.

Justice Crain listened patiently.  “Mr. Field also said that if I did not use it the school would expel me, I might be ridiculed at home and all sorts of things might happen.  I became frantic and cried, for I didn’t know anyone in Atlanta to talk the thing over with, and I was simply floored.  While I waited for my train in Atlanta he got me so frightened that I went with him to the home of the Rev. Dr. Wallace Rodgers, a Methodist clergyman, and we were married.”

The young singer did not get her annulment.  Crain called her testimony “unbelievable” in light of Georgia law regarding the acquiring of a marriage license, and added “she is also a young woman of a degree of education which makes it improbable that she would have believed and been influenced by statements of the character which she claim the defendant made to her.”

Grace Field lived on in the Studio Club, married, and the organization continued with its art sales, recitals and instruction here until around 1928.  That year it was owned by Central Synagogue as the Central Synagogue Community House.  Here the Women’s Organization of Central Synagogue held a series of art exhibitions, among other activities.  The building also housed the School for Adult Jewish Education.
A limousine awaits at the curb in 1930 -- photo NYPL Collection
In the late 1960s the building was purchased by the Fleming School and, as Eleanor Keller intended, once again became a private school—one of Manhattan’s most exclusive and progressive.  The school would remain in the building until December 4, 1989 when it was sold for $8.9 million to Revlon.

A special permit was necessary for the cosmetics firm to renovate the building for commercial purposes; especially considering its location with the Upper East Side Historic District.  Having acquired it, Revlon forged ahead with a sympathetic restoration of the exterior that included reproduction of architectural elements and a not-so-sympathetic gutting of the interiors.

The façade restoration brought Eleanor Keller’s handsome Italian-style school building back to life.  With many of its vintage neighbors razed and replaced with less attractive structures, Miss Keller’s School once again “relieves the extreme severity of that fashionable high-brow block.”
photo by Alice Lum

1 comment:

  1. My grandmother, Gertrude Lord (daughter of the Brooklyn and Manhattan architect Austin W. Lord), was a student at this school in 1908. She served as an usher for the school's performance of a play at the Carnegie Lyceum on May 12 of that year. Fascinating to hear about the school.

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