[Acknowledgement: The author graciously acknowledges being introduced to the Keil Mansion described below by Frances Stern, some many years ago.]
On a chilly November morning I knocked on the door of 381 East 165th Street in the Bronx, a short walk from the busy, modern stretch of the Bronx Judicial Center complex on 161st Street, the tracks of Conrail and Metro-North just steps away on Park Avenue. My visit to this storied mansion, a hold-out from better days, was pre-arranged. As with so many of my projects, a chance encounter with this magnificent home had sparked my interest some ten years before. Tucked away in my list of things to look into was this ivy-covered manse, one of the strangest structures I’ve ever encountered in an old New York neighborhood. So long ago was my first visit, I’d in fact forgotten its exact location. While perusing a website article about the derelict Shuttleworth Mansion on Mount Hope Place at Anthony Avenue, I decided to visit no matter what it would take.
First, in mid-September, I visited Shuttleworth’s cut-stone, veranda-wrapped glory on a warm, early autumn afternoon, just south of Tremont Avenue. The wonder of this haunted house, sitting among 6-story apartment houses just south of the Cross-Bronx Expressway fueled my flaneur lust: the juxtaposition of faded early 20th century upper-middle class glory hard by the grittier parts of the mid-Bronx spurred me on.
After standing in the street marveling at Shuttleworth’s creation and immersing myself in the sights, smells and sounds of a Pentecostal Church BBQ and salsa party just up the block, I was ready to do the deed. For the next two hours I drove slowly up and down the blocks to the south, down to Webster Avenue, then south to 161st Street and over to Park Avenue, the only marker I truly recalled. I was exhausted, and menaced with frustration, my cat in his cage in the back seat yowling for release, even though we still had ahead of us a two hour drive upstate to my country house that I’d planned for later that day.
It always happens this way: you’re ready to give up. Then you turn a corner. And wham, one’s obscure object of desire smacks you in the face. So it was with 381 East 165th Street. Crossing eastward to Park Avenue for the tenth time as I threaded the huge needle, at the corner of Clay Avenue, there she blew.
I parked my car in a shady spot, stepped out on dream-driven feet and gazed, stared, consumed the glory of a time long-gone, enmeshed in the wonder of whose it was and what the inside looked like. Was it truly undivided into apartments, as the single door bell indicated? How much original detail remained? And what luck it would be to gain entry! I decided, rather than ringing the bell, to go about this task methodically, finding the owner’s identity and contact information straight up. I have a shpiel I use for these occasions to justify my interest and establish some street cred with wary New Yorkers. Like a knife through hot butter, it worked this time.
Searching ACRIS, the online NYC property information system that provides images of recorded property documents for many decades past, and 411.com, I quickly determined the name and phone number of the last owner of record. Rehearsing my introduction, I dialed the number and left a message. Within hours, a call came back: an ostensibly elderly African-American female voice greeted me and we chatted easily, me establishing my bona fides, and she welcoming a visit in a month or so after she returned from her sojourn in South Carolina. I made a note in my calendar to call her in early November and lo and behold, it all worked out. A follow-up call received the same welcome and I made a date to visit. Confirming that morning, I was told to just ring the bell. The owner’s daughter is the actual inhabitant, and sure enough, a 20-something young lady answered the door. Kiesha (not her real name) was home mid-morning, her 5 year old son having been put on the cheese bus that morning for school. Somewhat apprehensively, I accepted K’s eager invitation to enter, and I was pleasantly surprised at her articulateness and open-minded acceptance of my mission. Despite a poor education and difficult life circumstances, K.’s mind was also full of hope and wonder, touring me as long as I wished in the interior, explaining all she knew of the house’s inner workings, totally appropriate and accepting of this strange white guy who showed up at her door.
Though the mansion has in fact never been cut up, many original details are either dilapidated or obscured by the piles of bric-a-brac filling each room, perhaps not the Collyer Brothers, but a good clean out is due. Much original detail remains in the home, from panelling to stained glass windows and a glorious skylight above the main staircase, and the original massive bathtub remains upstairs, suitable for President William Taft.
Our conversation ranged all over, from education and public school kindergarten to classic literature and K.’s hopes and dreams of writing her memoirs at even such a tender age. With profuse gratitude, I said goodbye, urging K. to send me something she’d like me to read and edit. It hasn’t happened to date, but I hope she will.
Francis Keil was a well-known inventor and manufacturer of locks and hardware, with an enormous factory at 401 East 163rd Street nearby. Perhaps the extant structure there is at least part of the factory. Quoting from Andrew Dolkart’s comprehensive designation report to the Landmarks Preservation Commission in 1994 for the Clay Avenue Historic District, the “two-story, red brick neo-Renaissance style house is the only single-family dwelling in the historic district. The house was commissioned from architect Charles S. Clark in 1906 by local hardware merchant Francis Keil. The East 165th Street facade is five bays wide, with the entrance in the middle bay, located slightly to the left of center. The round-arched entrance with paired wood-and-glass doors is set within a small porch composed of brick piers with stone capitals supporting an entablature and a sloping roof. A shallow rounded bay is located to the right of the entrance. The windows in the bay are capped by a continuous rock-faced stone lintel, while the individual windows have splayed rockfaced stone lintels with projecting imposts and keystones; there is a simple sill beneath each window. On the Clay Avenue facade, the left side of the first story is accented by a rounded bay identical to that on East 165th Street. There is a single window to the right of the bay and a pair of stained-glass windows lighting the second story; the lintels and sills are identical to those on the front facade. On the east elevation, facing the yard, are three windows at the first story and two openings at the second story, all with lintels and sills. All windows, with the exception of the two stained-glass windows, have historic one-over-one or two-over-two wood sash. The three visible facades are crowned by a heavy galvanized-iron bracketed cornice and a brick parapet with inset panels. An historic wrought-iron fence set on a brick wall runs along the two street fronts. The 1910 census notes that Francis Keil from “Aust-Bohemia” (he was probably a German speaker from what is now the Czech Republic, then a part of the Austro-Hungarian Empire), aged 69, who had come to America in 1867. He lived here with his wife Anna, sister Mary, and a sixteenyear old servant, Anna Hurt, who had only been in America since 1908. All three women were also listed as immigrants from “Aust-Bohemia.” The entire report tells the fascinating history of the development of the immediate neighborhood after the demolition of the Fleetwood Park clubhouse and race course that once dominated the area. You can read it here: http://www.nyc.gov/html/lpc/downloads/pdf/reports/CLAY_AVENUE_HISTORIC_DISTRICT.pdf
Born in 1840, Keil lived a very long life, passing away at 101 years of age. He turned over his Bronx home to his employee F. A. Wurzbach in and moved to the stately 101 Central Park West in Manhattan, where he died at home in 1942. Wurzbach retired as general maanager of the Keil enterprise at Melrose Avenue and East 163rd Street in 1927 and lived in the home until his death in 1950, according to his obituary in The New York Times.
Predeceased by his wife, Francis Keil’s ashes were interred alongside hers in a stately but modest tomb at Woodlawn Cemetery amongst the grandiose mausoleums of industrial and commercial titans of the 20th century such as Frank Woolworth.
Francis Keil’s reputation and fame as an inventor, designer, and manufacturer of clever and frequently ornate items remains to this day among the cognoscenti of locks and keys as well as cabinet hardware. Search E-bay or any other auction site and you’ll find dozens of specimens of his prowess. Days long gone by on Clay Avenue, for sure. I’m glad I unlocked a story worth telling.