Legends of Long Island City - Queens Courier
A book of the community’s past would be overwhelmed with narratives of lives that resonate over time: the boisterous politician, the nameless saint, a person of note. William Steinway’s contributions changed both our city and country. He was drawn to Long Island City because it was good ground for opportunity. Perhaps he sensed us, too, as a community that could make his dreams real, dreams that helped define his the age he lived in. Mr. Steinway is our very own “Renaissance Man.”
His childhood was described in spare terms, the fourth son of Henry Engelhard Steinway, a craftsman of pianos from Seesen, a town in Brunswick, Germany. His schooling included instruction in languages and music, skills for he would find good use in adulthood. He apprenticed at a piano factory for two years.
The Steinways came as immigrants to the alien shores of America in the 1850s. Their dream was to design and perfect the most complex hand crafted instrument in the world: the Steinway Piano.
Within three years the Steinways were making those pianos under their name. Each family member had a duty: instrument development or sales promotion, for example. William, one of the youngest of five adult brothers and proficient in English, was responsible for administration. He eventually became company president.
William created one of the first modern corporations, a many armed enterprise that drew resources from around the globe. The world, in turn, was his market. The neighborhood around his family’s factory became a magnet for craftsmen and artisans from many nations and many places – the German Cabinet Makers Union even bought land near Steinway Street and Broadway. Sohmer Piano, Astoria Silk Works, Astoria Mahogany, and dozens of smaller shops crafted silk and metal and wood into things the world wanted. They changed the image of American craftsmanship forever.
William was just getting started. He built the Steinway Concert & Artist Department (the agency that sent artists around the country on tours) and managed Steinway Hall, the country’s outstanding cultural venue in his time. The roots of the modern entertainment industry, whose heart is New York City, can be traced from these two ideas.
Mr. Steinway applied his skills to community development and public transportation. The Steinway Settlement, the waterfront community around the factory, attracted thousands drawn by its location and amenities. He organized two transit grids: the New York City subway system and a streetcar network that knit the borough of Queens together. His projects included the Queensboro Bridge, the Steinway Tubes under the East River, and a proposal for a metropolitan rail network (later built by the Pennsylvania Railroad). He was a heavy investor in the idea of the automobile.
William’s personal life was marked by triumphs and sorrows. He had a messy divorce from his first wife, an adulteress. One of six children was illegitimate. Brothers Albert, Charles and Henry died young and their responsibilities, business and personal, fell on his, and surviving brother, C.F. Theodore’s shoulders.
Great men of his time sought his counsel, politicians his support, and newspapers his ideas. He turned down a cabinet post offered by personal friend, President Chester A. Arthur; William could not find time in his busy schedule. Under his management, the company thrived despite the chronically weak economy in the decades after the Civil War.
Mr. Steinway died on November 30, 1896, aged 62. He is buried at Green-Wood Cemetery, Brooklyn.
He left a final gift. In 2010, the Smithsonian Institution made public nine volumes of his personal diaries covering the last 35 years of his life (they start in 1861). Those words give us an unparalleled window to the past, a time when William and his family summered at the mansion in Astoria. We also have dozens of family pictures from those years. One of the most notable is William, sitting on the mansion’s carriage step, hat in hand, looking past us, confidently, towards the future.
Next installment: “The Commissioners find Value”.