New York City skyline

The Keller Hotel

Main shot of Keller Hotel.
The Keller Hotel has been unoccupied since 1998.
Photo courtesy Wikimedia Commons
The Keller Hotel was built in 1898 and has been vacant since 1998. Its careworn look and faded, rusted neon sign have made it an object of curiosity for tourists and derision for neighbors. But its history is fascinating.

The busy Hudson River piers in 1909.
The Hudson River piers in 1909, when maritime trade was at its peak.
Photo © Detroit Publishing Co.

The Keller was built across the street from the Hudson River piers, then the bustling center of maritime trade in New York. From the late 1800s to the early 1900s, cargo ships, transatlantic cruise lines, and ferries all docked along the lower Hudson, disembarking thousands of seamen and travelers.

The Keller was one of many riverfront hotels built to cater to this trade. But in the early decades of the 20th century, freighters began to give way to container ships and cruise ships to air travel, and the waterfront went into decline. In 1939, the Federal Writer's Project's New York City Guide described the riverfront this way:

"Opposite the piers, along the entire length of the highway, nearly every block houses its quota of cheap lunchrooms, tawdry saloons, and waterfront haberdasheries catering to the thousands of polyglot seamen who haunt the front."

As commerce along the Hudson dwindled, the hotel had to adapt to survive. By 1935, the Keller was formally registered with the city as a home for itinerant seaman, a requirement designed to ensure safe housing in the run-down district.

Abandoned Hudson River piers.
By the 1980s, the Hudson River piers were abandoned and derelict.
Photo © Paul Hosefros/The New York Times.

In the 1980s, as even river workers became scarce and the Hudson River piers were abandoned, the Keller became a single-room occupancy hotel (SRO), where people of little means could rent small, flimsy-walled rooms by the month. Still later, the Keller became a welfare hotel, where the city housed people on public assistance until it could find them permanent housing.

Today, the Keller is one of the last remaining turn-of-the-century waterfront hotels. That distinction, along with the stature of its architect, Julius Munckwitz (see below), contributed to the Keller's designation as a New York City landmark in 2007.

How the Keller Came to Be

Aerial photo depicting the Keller Hotel.
William Farrell built the Keller Hotel on two lots that faced the Hudson River. Farrell used the other three lots, behind the hotel on Barrow St., for his coal business; today, those lots are single-story garages that remain part of the hotel's property. The Hudson River is just out of frame on the lower left.
Photo © Morris Adjmi Architects.
In 1875, a 48-year-old Irish-born coal merchant named William Farrell operated a coal yard along Barrow St., on the west side of Manhattan. The yard spanned four lots of land, three of which fronted Barrow St., with the fourth at the corner of Barrow and West Sts. (its official address is 384 West St).

In 1890, Farrell bought all four lots, along with an adjacent one at 385 West St. In 1898, he built the Keller for $68,000 on the two West St. lots. He continued to use the other three lots, behind the hotel, for his coal business. Today, those lots house four single-story garages.

The Keller is a six-story Renaissance Revival hotel. The first floor of the Hudson-facing side of the hotel housed two storefronts that attracted West St.'s busy foot traffic, while the entrance to the hotel itself was around the corner, on Barrow St.

The Keller went through a number of name changes over the years. When it was first built, it was known as the Knickerbocker Hotel. In 1911, it was renamed the New Hotel Keller, and in 1929, it was the Keller Abingdon Hotel. From 1993 on, it was called the Keller Hotel.

A longshoreman in his Keller room in 1976.
A former longshoreman in his room at the Keller in 1976, when the hotel was an SRO (single-room occupancy) hotel.
Photo © Allan Tannenbaum
Little is known about the hotel’s interior—its rooms, lobby, ornamentation, or floor plan. Interior pictures are rare, but a few exist.

The Keller Through the Years

The Keller Hotel in 1900.
The Keller in 1900, just a few years after it was built. At that time, it was known as the Knickerbocker Hotel; you can see the sign above the third-floor windows.
Photo © New York Public Library.
The Keller Hotel in 1918.
1918. According to records, the hotel was known as the New Keller when this picture was taken.
Photo © New York Public Library.
The Keller Hotel in 1929.
1929. Beginning this year, and until 1993, the Keller was known as the Hotel Keller Abingdon.
Photo © New York Public Library.
The Keller Hotel in 1940.
1940. City directories still list the hotel as the Keller Abingdon, though that sign has been replaced with a much simpler one. The only indications of a name for the hotel is the small arrow below the sign, which says "Keller," and the portico above the hotel's door, which says "Hotel Keller." The 1940 Census recorded 98 lodgers at the hotel, including 5 seamen and 21 others working as longshoremen or otherwise employed on the docks.
Photo © New York Public Library.
The Keller Hotel in 1964.
1964. The trucks on the right are in the lot of a transportation company across the street.
Photo © John Barrington Bayley, Landmarks Preservation Commission.
The Keller Hotel in 1985.
1985. The hotel and bar will remain open for another 13 years.
Photo © Peter McKie.
The Keller Hotel in 2005.
2005. At this point, the hotel and its stores have been vacant for 7 years.
Photo © Peter McKie.

The Stores Over Time

While the Keller is built of brick, the two storefronts are clad in cast iron, which could support large plate glass display windows. The left-hand store, at 385 West St., housed many types of business over the years. They included a billiards parlor (John Dees, 1940), the Bering Marine Service field office (1945), an electrical engineer’s office (Jerome Jawitz, 1950), the Eastern Tire and Supply Co. (1953-1958), Lou Berg’s Seamen Supplies and Work Clothes (1959-1970), and a catering service called QQFS (1973-1975).

The store on the right has been a restaurant or bar since at least 1939. It was the Renee Tavern from 1939 to 1949, the Charles Bar & Grill from 1950 to 1955, and the Keller Bar from 1956 until the hotel’s closing in 1998. The Keller Bar has its own fascinating history (see below).

The Keller stores in 1900.
The Keller stores in 1900. Note the three extensions at the store doorways, two of which are on West St., with the third on Barrow St. The extensions (and the awning above them) survived until at least until 1918 (see next image). By 1940, the Barrow St. door will be boarded up.
Photo © New York Public Library.
The Keller stores in 1918.
1918. Although difficult to see, it appears that the doorway extensions are still in place, as is the awning.
Photo © New York Public Library.
The Keller stores in 1929.
1929. At this point, the doorways are now unprotected, and the awning has been removed. In time, the doorway on Barrow St. (far right) will be boarded up.
Photo © New York Public Library.
The Keller stores in 1940.
1940. The left-hand store is John Dees' billiards parlor, and the right-hand store is Renee Tavern. Here you can see that the Barrow St. doorway has been boarded up and covered in an ad. An ad has also been added to the wall to the right of the old doorway.

By chance, the Keller was photographed twice in 1940, once as seen in this "tax photo" (where every building in the city was photographed by the city's Dept. of Finance), and once as seen in the carousel above.

Photo © New York Department of Finance.
The Keller stores in 1964.
1964. Lou Berg's sold overalls at the left-hand store from 1959 to 1970; Sweet-Orr was a manufacturer of work clothes in upstate New York. The right-hand store is now the Keller Bar; its upper windows have been boarded up, an exhaust fan has been installed, and striped metal awnings have been added. Note the name of the bar painted on the corner column. That sign was changed to just "Keller's" in later years, and will, in time, be painted over completely.
The Keller stores in 1975.
1975. The store on the right would be the home of the QQFS catering service at this point. Much of the Keller's glassfront has been covered up, and the column now identifies the bar as just Keller's. Note that the "ornaments" on the Christmas tree are beer cans.
Photo © Hank O'Neal.
The Keller stores in 1985.
1985. The left-hand store is vacant and gated, but the Keller would be in business for another 13 years. The bar's side window (on Barrow St.) has now been boarded up, and the awning removed.
Photo © New York Department of Finance.

The Keller Bar

Outside shot of Keller Bar in 2011.
Exterior of the Keller Bar in 2011.
Photo © Joseph.
The Keller Bar occupied the right-hand storefront of the hotel from 1956 until 1998. Said to be the oldest gay “leather” bar in the city, it was noteworthy as a place of hard drinking.

Here's one customer's rememberance of the Keller from 1974, via a blog post:

"As we turned the corner onto West Street, I saw a few motorcycles parked in front of a small bar. A bright rosy light cast itself across the pavement from the two windows, illuminating the chrome detailing on the bikes. The red neon sign, hanging above, threw the now-silent trucks parked under the highway into stark relief. We opened the door and walked in.

It was a small, rather plain room, shaped like a shoebox. A door, with a window on each side. A rough wooden bar that ran the length of the room on the left. A pool table and jukebox on the right. A few strings of Christmas lights and dozens of handsome men crammed inside. The jukebox featured a mix of current soul and rock, along with the Ronettes singing "Walking In The Rain" and the Shirelles essaying "Chains". Later "Shame, Shame, Shame" would play incessantly, as the patrons danced in place, and the bartender hollered in faux-annoyance."

Just as there are few remaining interior shots of the hotel, so there are few of the bar.

Interior of the old Keller Bar.
A rare, present-day shot of the interior of the old Keller Bar. You can see a sliver of the entrance door on the far right (yellow strip). The barred double window is the right-hand window if you looked at the bar from the street. To the left of that is the cast-iron corner column that displayed the bar's name on the outside (see the 1964 picture in "The Stores Over Time," above). The two pieces of plywood to the left of the column are where the store's Barrow St. display window was. It was boarded up some time between 1964 and 1985. If you looked left from this vantage point, you'd see the long-blocked Barrow St. door of the store, as in the photo at right.
Renering © Morris Adjmi Architects.
Interior of the old Keller Bar.
If you stood where the picture at left was taken and then turned left, this is the view you'd have. The original side door of the store is on the far left. It has been boarded up since at least 1940, but you can still see its cast-iron framing.
Renering © Morris Adjmi Architects.

The Architect

Julius F. Munckwitz emigrated from Germany in 1849, when he was 20 years old. He ran his own architectural firm in New York, where he designed commercial buildings, hotels, office buildings, and apartment buildings. In 1857, he also began working for the city's Parks Department, and in 1871 he became the Supervising Architect and Superintendent of Parks.

The Keller is the only one of Munckwitz's buildings still in existence, which partially accounts for the hotel's designation as a landmark. Munckwitz's other buildings have been demolished for new construction, though he is listed as a co-designer on three Parks projects that still stand: the Central Park Boathouse and Riverside Park, both in Manhattan, and a retaining wall in Morningside Park, Queens.

Munckwitz resigned from the Parks Department in 1885, but continued working as an independent architect until his death in 1902.

The Keller Becomes a Landmark

In 2007, New York City’s Landmarks Preservation Commission (LPC) gave the Keller landmark protection, meaning that the building’s exterior cannot be altered without going through a rigorous approval process.

The LPC cited two unique characteristics in designating the hotel a landmark: It is one of the last surviving turn-of-the-century riverfront hotels in the City, and therefore "a significant reminder of the era when the Port of New York was one of the world’s busiest and the section of the Hudson River between Christopher and 23rd Streets was the heart of the busiest section of the Port of New York." In addition, it is the only remaining example of Julius Munckwitz's work.

The Keller’s Future

Rendering of the new Keller Hotel.
Artist's rendering of the new Keller.
Renering © Morris Adjmi Architects.
Today, the Keller is being renovated. On April 4, 2017, the Landmarks Preservation Commission gave the building’s owners permission to clean up the exterior of the hotel and renovate the interior. It also approved plans to turn the single-story four-stall garage, which sits behind the hotel, into residential apartments.
The original garages behind the Keller.
The single-story garages behind the Keller. This is the original location of William Farrell's coal yard. Note the scaffolding on the hotel itself.
Photo © Peter McKie.
Rendering of residential units replacing garages.
Artist's rendering of the residential units that will replace the garages.
Renering © Morris Adjmi Architects.