The Steinways had to leave Manhattan.
During the New York City Draft Riots in 1863, when the city was ruled by the streets for three terrifying days, a mob of thousands carrying torches and assorted weapons marched on the Steinway factory. Forewarned, armed workers stared back from factory windows. Payments in cash were made. The horde slowly drifted away. Only by chance a torch was not tossed through an open window onto some sawdust in a bin or lacquer in a vat. If that had happened, by the next morning the corner of Park Avenue and 54th Street would have been a brick walled ruin. The story would have ended there.
Throughout the decade of the 1860s, things got much worse.
Workforce loyalty was tested by wave after wave of anarchists, socialists and other assorted labor agitators who showed up repeatedly at the factory’s front door trying to form unions or, at a moment’s notice, announce a work stoppage in sympathy for another shop across town.
Adding to the family’s woes the Park Avenue factory was quickly becoming a noose about their necks. After less than two decades, they had run out of room to expand. Production fell behind a growing cascade of piano orders. Even worse, there was no place for log storage – an essential step in piano production. Wood, when cut, is ‘green’ and must be first stacked to dry out or ‘season’ for at least a year. Acres were needed by the growing concern – not city lots.
William Steinway sent agents around the metropolitan area. He received reports of “a beautiful garden spot surrounded by waste lands and vacant lots” in Long Island City, Queens. With a half-mile of waterfront, it was both near the geographical center of Greater New York and was only five miles from New York’s City Hall. The location was perfect. Making no secret of Steinway intentions, flush with cash (and perhaps goaded to move quickly by the Steinways), their agents offered premium prices. The local farmers had no problem selling at that level. Ultimately the company purchased some 400 acres. For the next 80 years – as late as the 1950s – they were selling lots.
Before starting, the Steinways made a permanent record of their accomplishment. The hauled a camera to the top of a tall building (perhaps the Wilson Nursery windmill that stood at what would be today’s intersection of Steinway Street and Grand Central Parkway.) They took six pictures and knitted them together into a stunning panoramic view that went from the Hell Gate to Flushing Bay. It is undoubtedly the most breathtaking picture of Queens from the nineteenth century. Copies are displayed at the Steinway & Sons factory and the Greater Astoria Historical Society museum.
It showed a waterfront with a few estates in the distance. In the foreground was a lane (20th Road) with tidy farms that had been in the family of the Tituses and Kouwenhovens for generations. In the center, on a knoll, was a mansion owned by the family of Benjamin Pike. We know it today as the Steinway Mansion.
Most of the setting was marsh and vacant land, but to the Steinways, this was a blank canvas. They approached it as a composer would set about to fill a blank page of sheet music. A symphony was about to begin.
William zealously set about building a utopian community going about his task, as his contemporaries noted, in “a very liberal, philanthropic, and benevolent spirit.” Although the Steinway Settlement had many enlightened amenities provided by the company, it was empathically no ‘company town.’ Housing was open to everyone. Real estate brochures showed several types of model houses (some still in the community as of this writing) that could be built. Maps of the community given to prospective buyers showed a street grid already mapped out with trolley lines, sidewalks, water mains and sewers.
The company built a public bath house, a waterfront park, a firehouse with apparatus served by a volunteer company, a post office, and a public school. Churches were built. The community boasted one of the first kindergartens in the country. Its lending library, through mergers, became the Queens Borough Library. The portrait of William Steinway has stayed in the library system over the years and is now on the reading room wall at the library’s Steinway Branch. Steinway Street, as a local shopping hub, began with the commercial district that grew up serving the community’s needs.
Nearby a number of manufacturing enterprises started. Besides the Steinway & Sons factory, the Steinways were involved in a number of other efforts: the Astoria Mahogany Company, the Astoria Silk Works, and the Steinway Transit Company. Everywhere was prosperity. Everywhere was both backing and support from the Steinways.
Within 20 years, more than 7,000 people lived in the Steinway Settlement. William Steinway in his diary wrote “Father would be proud.”
Next: The Steinway Tubes and Mr. Daimler