Saturday, June 3, 2023

The Alexander Keller House - 209 East 61st Street


In 1873 builders Breen & Nason commenced construction on a row of three high-stooped brownstone houses at 205 through 209 East 61st Street.  Acting as their own architects, they designed the identical homes in the Italianate style, with classical pediments over the parlor floor openings and prominent cornices atop the upper floor windows.  Completed in 1874, each of the 20-foot-wide houses cost the developers $14,000 to erect, or about $327,000 in 2023.

The eastern-most of the row, 209 East 61st Street, became home to the Alexander Keller family.  Keller and his wife had three children, David, Sidney and Martha.  The family took in one or two boarders and their succinct advertisements over the years were always similarly worded.  A typical ad on January 31, 1883 read, "First Class Rooms and Board, in Jewish family, 209 East 61st st."  The clear mention of the family's religion was almost assuredly intended to stave off potential anti-Semitic problems.

Following their father's death in 1896, the heirs leased the house to Rosa and Bernard Metz.  Living with the couple were their adult children Paul, Edwin, Joseph and Hattie, along with Hattie's husband George Gattel.  The family was upper-middle class--Edwin was a knit goods salesman, Bernhard a commission merchant, Joseph worked in the drygoods business, and George Gattel was a partner with Samuel Benjinsohn in the firm of Gattel & Benjinsohn, makers of collars and cuffs, on Canal Street.  

Paul Metz was a piano tuner with the Weber-Wheelock Piano Company.  Seemingly the black sheep of the family, he found himself behind bars on September 29 that year.  He had gone to Scotch Plains, New Jersey with another Weber-Wheelock employee to deliver a piano to Brenner's Hotel.  While there, a livery stable owner, Frank Allen, recognized him as the man who had tuned a piano for Mr. and Mrs. William Stanberry in the same town a week earlier.  On that day Mrs. Stanberry had discovered jewelry missing from her home.

Allen notified the Stanberrys, who came to the hotel, identified Metz as the man who had been in their home, and had him arrested.  The Sun reported, "Metz protested and asserted his innocence."  Unfortunately, his troubles had only begun.  The newspaper said, "Metz was then brought to Plainfield to answer to a charge preferred by Mrs. N. Pendleton Rogers, who identified him as the person who had entered her house on Sept. 1 and stolen silverware."  (According to a descendent, Amy B. Cohen, Paul Metz "abandoned the family and disappeared in 1900.")

Despite the embarrassment, Hattie Gattel was involved in polite society.  On November 4, 1900, for instance, the New York Herald announced, "The Thursday Afternoon Whist Club will inaugurate its season on Thursday afternoon.  The first meeting will be held at the residence of Mrs. George Gattel, No. 209 East Sixty-first street."  The article mentioned, "the prizes, it is said, will be unusually handsome."

In 1905 Joseph G. Metz purchased the house.  By now he was secretary and director of A. Richter & Co.  Only two years later, however, the property was sold again, and again in 1913--this time to Henry Louis Walther and his wife Susanna.  The couple had two school-aged boys.

On the night of July 9, 1914 the boys were awakened by the sound of someone trying to break in through the skylight.  They "raised an alarm" by yelling out a window for a policeman.  Chaos followed.  The Evening World reported, "Then some one in a house in Sixty-second street had fired several revolver shots out of the window."  The gunshots "brought half a dozen policemen to Third avenue and Sixty-first street," said the article, who caught two men running out of the apartment building at 1035 Third Avenue.

Police identified William Brady and Timothy Gaynor as "members of the Pansies, a gang which loiters in the neighborhood of Eightieth street and Second avenue."  Both had previously been arrested for minor crimes.  Investigators found a rope ladder hanging from the apartment building to the roofs of the row of houses.  "Apparently the youths had crossed the roofs to the Walter [sic] home under the supposition that the Walters [sic] were away."  The Walther boys had prevented what would have been a much worse situation.

The Walther's residency would be short.  Later that year they sold 209 East 61st Street to Dr. Martin Rehling.  A graduate of New York University and Bellevue Hospital Medical College, he was an associate professor of Surgery at the New York Post-Graduate Medical School, and an adjunct surgeon at the German Hospital and Dispensary.  He would remain in the house until the early 1940s.

Dr. Rehling lived in the house when this photo was taken in 1941.  image via the NYC Dept of Records & Information Services.

Change came when a renovation, completed in 1945, resulted in two duplex apartments.  The upper apartment was leased by 31-year-old actor Montgomery Clift in 1951.  He was already a star and heartthrob, and that year A Place In The Sun premiered, co-starring Elizabeth Taylor and Shelley Winters.  

While living here he spent much of the time away in filming.  In 1953 he starred in Terminal Station and From Here to Eternity, in 1957 Raintree County was released, and 1958 saw the premiers of The Young Lions and Lonelyhearts.  That year he began the filming of Suddenly, Last Summer.

Montgomery Clift, from the collection of the Library of Congress

Clift carefully guarded his privacy and did his best to hide his homosexuality from the public.  But it was hard to conceal after fire broke out in the building on the morning of September 25, 1959 at around 10:30.  Clift and a man were in bed, passed out after taking drugs or alcohol.  Firefighters had to break into the apartment and rescue the pair.  The Schenectady Gazette reported, "Firemen said Clift and an unidentified friend were escorted from the top floor of the three story brownstone building to the roof and then to an adjoining roof to safety.  Clift occupies the upper two floors of the building."

According to Charles Casillo in his 2021 book Elizabeth and Monty - The Untold Story of Their Intimate Friendship

Whatever the reason for the fire, the surrounding news did Monty no good, adding to his already badly tarnished image.  He was already widely-considered a high-risk actor, and the story simply proved his recklessness.  The surrounding gossip only confirmed his homosexuality in executives' eyes and underlined his dangerous substance abuse.

Montgomery Clift moved down the block to 217 East 61st Street, where he died on July 23, 1966.

The 2021 renovation included a whimsical and delightful stoop railing.

The fire damage was repaired and the configuration of duplexes remained until 2021 when a renovation returned 209 East 61st Street to a single family home.  It is the last of the 1874 row to retain its stoop and period architectural details.

photographs by the author
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