When Michele Kleier was growing up in the idyllic Squirrel Hill neighborhood of Pittsburgh, she and her best friend felt safe walking back and forth between their homes in their nightgowns.
Kleier, who is now one of Manhattan’s leading real estate brokers, said she’s given up those nocturnal wanderings clad in nightclothes, though a similar intimacy reigns in Carnegie Hill, the Upper East Side neighborhood she discovered almost three decades ago — along with that same best friend, Sheila Britz.
“Old places in the neighborhood are so family-friendly, people-friendly; they just really cater to anybody who they get to know,” said Kleier, a diminutive dark-haired woman known for her ability to find stellar homes for celebrities.
Kleier, president and chairman of brokerage Gumley Haft Kleier, and her family, formerly residents of the West Side of Manhattan, moved to their nine-room prewar apartment at 1125 Park Avenue at 90th Street in the late 1970s. That was after Kleier, a former social worker, became enamored of the area while visiting a penthouse that her best friend from Pittsburgh (now the owner of an antique store, 202 Antiques at 202 East 58th Street) had purchased at 1120 Park Avenue.
“Nobody was living on 90th Street then — it was just so far Uptown,” said Kleier, who, along with her husband, Ian Kleier, outfitted her high-ceilinged apartment — which has its own private elevator — in old English and early American furnishings and art, along with cherished antiques from her former home in Pittsburgh.
“I used to go over to visit my friend — we had children the same age — and spend time in the neighborhood,” she said. “When my husband and I went to move to the East Side, I really wanted to be above 86th Street — a place that felt more like where I grew up. Pittsburgh had a very small-town feel, though it’s not really a small town.”
Kleier found what she was looking for, and she hasn’t left since. Neither has her family. Her two daughters, Samantha Kleier Forbes and Sabrina Kleier Morgenstern (both of whom are executive vice presidents at the real estate firm) have wandered but a few blocks from home. And it’s a home that maintains a warmth despite its Upper East Side pedigree.
Ian Kleier, who owns and manages Gumley Haft Kleier along with his wife, spent countless hours with former-actor-turned-architect Thomas Callaway designing the apartment to restore and recreate its prewar feel.
Situated on the third floor on the corner of Park and 90th Street, the Kleier home has romantic views of cherry blossoms in spring and resplendent views of the Christmas lights in winter along Park Avenue. There is a constant rotation of enticing artifacts because they like to change things up a bit and add to their art collection, including elegant 18th- and 19th-century paintings, collected at fairs, flea markets and auctions. Ian Kleier said he has passed along many fascinating objets d’art to his daughters to bedeck their own nearby classic prewar apartments.
“We just refine it, refine it, and buy new stuff, and eventually upgrade the things,” he said. “It’s very fluid.”
A constant theme among the oil paintings — and the most treasured occupants of the apartment — is canines. Besides the detailed painting in the foyer of a King Charles Spaniel, the Kleiers have three very alive snowy white Maltese pampered with plush individual beds in the entranceway, a pile of toys and even a miniature stairway up to the leather-and-paisley couch in the library. All three pups are named after showgirls: Dolly, Roxy and Lola.
The Maltese have been a tradition in the family. In the library, there are three small marble urns holding the ashes of the former Maltese, who also had the good fortune to live at 1125 Park Avenue.
“Those are my last three Maltese, who are unfortunately no longer with us,” Michele Kleier said. “But they’re always with us.”
The library holds not only dozens of books of classic literature, and a multitude on film and film noir, but perhaps hundreds of DVDs of films, tucked away in a large olive-green home video storage unit, surrounded by family photos and graced by a delicate painting of a deer on a hillside overlooking a valley.
The family — which includes a son, Jonathan Kleier, who also works at the brokerage and is in the process of moving out into his own home, and a grandchild, Chase Andrew Forbes, son of Samantha Kleier Forbes — finds the library, with the pantry and kitchen across from it, the area most frequented. However, there are many other intriguing rooms in the apartment.
In fact, the Kleiers first purchased the apartment to take advantage of its large living room attached to an ample dining room. Ian Kleier wanted to use the two rooms combined as a sort of movie house for friends.
“He used to show first-run movies, because he was in the movie business, so we needed a living room and dining room that were opposite each other,” Michele Kleier said. “So the projector could be against the wall, and then … you could have 50 people sitting here watching the movie.”
Those rooms have now been converted back into an elegant living room and dining room, while a back room has been transformed into the only room that doesn’t really fit into their prewar apartment. It is referred to as the “Roxy Theatre,” after Ian Kleier’s favorite theater growing up, with a red drape over a 58-inch television, and a huge photograph from the 1939 release of “Gone With the Wind” that hung at the original Loews Grand Theatre.
But it wasn’t Ian Kleier’s work in film marketing or his predilection for the moving pictures, which often got him first-run films from Woody Allen and the like, that got Michele Kleier into handling real estate brokerage for celebrities. It was her own penchant for Warren Beatty.
“Truthfully, the celebrity thing sort of happened as an accident a long time ago,” she said. “I was particularly enamored with a particular celebrity, Warren Beatty. I found out he was looking for an apartment. I tracked him down, and he became my first celebrity client. After that, I got a lot of other clients. One thing led to another.”
A grand piano in the Kleiers’ living room is representative of those types of celebrity associations. Michele Kleier said she remembers when Marvin Hamlisch, a real estate client, was over and she took her son Jonathan onto his lap to teach him a song on the piano.
“When Jonathan was little, Marvin was at my apartment — we have a picture, in fact — and he sat on Marvin’s lap, and Marvin taught him to play a song,” Michele Kleier said. “And then Marvin put pieces of paper on all of the keys and Scotch-taped them on so Jonathan could follow the notes.”
Since then, the business handled by Gumley Haft Kleier has blossomed to include other celebrities, Wall Street executives and well-paid lawyers, among other clients, but the Kleiers said that they believe most of the business has come from those who are truly seeking a sense of community in the tumultuous city of New York. Michele Kleier points out that many of her friends from the old neighborhood in Pittsburgh have found their way to Carnegie Hill, as well as parents of her children’s schoolmates at the exclusive Horace Mann School.
Kleier said she has sold throughout her career 43 apartments at 1125 Park Avenue, which has 73 apartments total. Of course, some of those apartments have been sold several times over, she said. And despite moans of a credit crisis, the high-end market appears to be hopping, she said.
“I actually just sold a penthouse that we’re closing in October,” Kleier said. “And an eight-room that’s also closing in October. And I now have an exclusive on a nine-room that’s similar to mine on the other side of the building.”
And Kleier, who got into the business while toting her two girls around, one in a baby carrier and one in a stroller, said she doesn’t believe that Carnegie Hill, now a solidly family neighborhood, will suffer from a market downturn.
“This area is a Gold Coast,” she said, relaxing on a late 18th century English Sheridan-style sofa under an early 20th century portrait of a young girl given to her by a grateful client. “There may be other areas, the fringe areas, that see a decline. But not this area.”