AT age 82, the documentary filmmaker Albert Maysles is one of the protean figures in his field. It is hardly surprising that the four-story brownstone on West 122nd Street in Harlem that he moved to in 2005 is filled with art and artifacts reflecting a century of cultural, social and political history.
But amid this evidence of a remarkable life and career, which includes work by some of the world’s greatest artists and photographers, a few pieces stand out. Among them is a small drawing that Mr. Maysles’ son, Philip, made when he was a boy. The haunting black-and-white image shows clouds and three Stars of David in the form of kites atop a row of figures whose bodies are X’ed out. At the bottom are railroad tracks, unmistakable emblems of the Holocaust.
“Philip was 6 when he drew this,” Mr. Maysles said the other day as he stood before the drawing and looked at it intently. “How he would have known” — the father paused and shrugged wordlessly — “is beyond me.”
The density of objects suggests a place long lived in, not a relatively new home that he has chosen to be the ideal setting for life’s next chapter.
Along with his younger brother, David, who died in 1987, Mr. Maysles gained acclaim for the 1968 documentary “Salesman,” about a quartet of door-to-door Bible salesmen. The brothers’ voluminous résumé also includes the 1970 film “Gimme Shelter” and the 1976 film “Grey Gardens,” which was reincarnated on Broadway and HBO.
For 35 years, Albert Maysles and his wife, Gillian, a psychotherapist, lived with their children at the Dakota, at Central Park West and 72nd Street. But over the years, as many of the building’s creative residents moved away, Mr. Maysles’ feelings about the neighborhood altered.
“The character of the building was changing,” said Mr. Maysles, a soft-spoken man with wispy white hair and so gentle a manner that it is hardly surprising he excels at getting people to reveal their deepest emotions. “It was still people like Yoko Ono and Lauren Bacall. But it wasn’t only creative people. On the street, you mostly saw people who were coming by to see where John Lennon lived.”
There was another issue. Mr. Maysles and his wife have four children; in addition to Philip there are two daughters, Sara and Rebekah, who live in New York, and a third daughter, Auralice, who lives half the year in India.
All four are grown. But the parents wanted enough space to allow them to live under their roof, or nearby. So they began to take steps to make this happen.
The brownstone on West 122nd Street, near Mount Morris Park, bought for about $1 million, is home to Mr. Maysles, his wife and Auralice, along with a shifting assortment of relatives and colleagues. Another brownstone, on West 120th Street, which was acquired for $700,000, is being renovated for use by Sara and Philip.
Mr. Maysles also bought a nearby commercial building on Lenox Avenue for $1.3 million. It houses his daughter Rebekah and is home to the Maysles Films office and the Maysles Institute, which includes a 60-seat theater.
This was not the only neighborhood Mr. Maysles investigated when contemplating the move from the Dakota.
“But some instinct said it was going to be Harlem,” he said. “I think because the neighborhood is such a community. Here, I saw people in conversation and a level of courtesy that I haven’t experienced anywhere else in the city. People say excuse me if they jostle you. On the bus or the subway, a younger person will give me a seat.”
Mr. Maysles felt an affinity for his new home for another reason. The chocolaty brownstones on his tree-lined street, festooned with flower-filled window boxes, Corinthian columns and graceful wrought-iron railings, dated from around 1880, the same period as his old building.
“The woodwork inside,” he said, “was exactly the same as the woodwork in the Dakota.”
To prepare the brownstone for occupancy, the walls were repainted, some of the woodwork was restored and bookshelves were added. But what makes the place feel so seductive is not so much individual furnishings or decorative touches — the acquisitions from eBay and flea markets, for instance, or the thousands of books — nor even such features as the two working fireplaces on each floor.
Rather, the power of this house has to do with the accretion of the pieces of the occupants’ lives. Thanks to the piling on of these elements, the house is a living, breathing palimpsest, a richly textured tapestry of colors and images and memories and history.
Visitors invariably sense this. “People come in and are astounded,” Mr. Maysles said. “This is a place that glorifies clutter without it imposing on you.”
To tour the house with him as your guide is to hear a litany of illustrious names. The photograph of Henri Matisse near a cage topped with white birds was a wedding present from Henri Cartier-Bresson. Bruce Davidson took pictures of the couple’s wedding in Water Mill, on Long Island. There is glass by the sculptor Dale Chihuly.
Everywhere there are family photographs, among them a picture of Mr. Maysles’ mother when she was a member of the Saturday Evening Girls, an organization for young immigrants in Boston, where the family grew up. Works by the couple’s gifted children, including a painting by Philip of the abolitionist leaders John Brown and Frederick Douglass, are everywhere.
One of the most appealing corners of the house is the back garden, a snug oasis visible through the kitchen window beyond a shimmering curtain of colored glass bottles and decanters of oils and vinegars. Here, in a space adorned with a brick floor, hanging plants, pots full of flowers and a little pool, the couple sit and drink gin and tonics, framed by a backdrop of colorful peace flags from Tibet that flutter in the breeze.
And hanging on the wall of the kitchen is an artifact that in its way is as evocative as Philip’s drawing of the Holocaust: a small silver cornet, scarred with age.
“Ain’t that something?” Mr. Maysles said, gazing at the instrument affectionately. “I’ll tell you a little story.” His father kept pieces of his World War I uniform in a closet in the family’s house, and sometimes the two of them would try on items. Once his father brought out a leather case with a cornet inside.
“He put the cornet to his lips,” Mr. Maysles said. “But he wouldn’t play it. He would just put it back.” Years later, Mr. Maysles learned that his father lost the heart to play when his brother, an accompanist, died.
“My father was a postal clerk,” Mr. Maysles said. “But I always thought he should have been a musician.”