For 160 years, the pianos made by Steinway & Sons have been considered the finest in the world. So when hedge fund billionaire John Paulson recently bought the company, it struck fear in the hearts of musicians: Would the famously handcrafted pianos be changed, for the sake of efficiency? Paulson, who owns several Steinways himself, says nothing will change.
Great pianists need great pianos. Vladimir Horowitz, the famous Russian pianist, used to travel with his own personal Steinway when he concertized around the world.
This fall, Russian pianist Kirill Gerstein was in New York City, set to appear with the New York Philharmonic. He sat at the keyboard of a Steinway D, a 9-foot concert grand, at Steinway Hall, the company’s lavish showroom in Manhattan….
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”.
After conquering the world of music and ascending the pinnacle of New York’s cultural scene with America’s premier entertainment and lecture space, Steinway Hall, the Steinway family turned their interests towards the ‘high tech’ of their age: transportation.
The family needed to insure that workers and residents in their community could have the best of both worlds: easy access to big city Manhattan as well as the advantages of living in a small town like Long Island City. Besides, there were all those empty lots in their settlement that had to be sold. Transportation easy and cheap was the key.
Their deep pockets made the chronically ailing Long Island City street car lines easy prey. The family’s legendary brilliance at problem solving ensured that those street rails not only ran on time, but expanded into a regional network that was unthinkable prior to their involvement. In 1883 William Steinway incorporated the Steinway & Hunter’s Point Railroad Company as a holding company after merging the Long Island City street railways into one entity. He built a massive car depot with shops, offices and storage areas on the west side of Steinway Street above 20th Avenue.
The Steinways were just getting started.
During an 1888 trip to Europe William met Gottlieb Daimler who held patents on the first practical internal combustion engine powered by gasoline. After the two took a ten mile drive in Daimler’s new horseless carriage Steinway and Daimler agreed to a partnership, Daimler Motor Company, which would initially focus its attention on stand-alone engines and motor boat production. Although American roads, unlike those in Europe, were not yet ready for automobile, towns and cities around the country were in the midst of a great boom in street and highway construction. It was only a matter of time before the American public would be receptive to the automobile.
Their first shop was a little building on the east side of Steinway Street between 20th Avenue and 20th Road in 1890. One could argue the Automotive Age began there for at the same time Henry Ford was still feeding teaspoons of gasoline to an experimental motor in his wife’s kitchen.
In the early 1890s, William, as chair of the New York City subway commission, helped design the city’s transit network. On paper a series of lines were drawn connecting the Bronx and Brooklyn with Manhattan. He did not neglect this opportunity for his community: Long Island City/Astoria’s excellent transit is a legacy of this attention.
His dream remains incomplete to this day: the 31st Street elevated line was to originally reach North Beach, today’s LaGuardia Airport.
In 1892, the Steinway Railway company undertook a large-scale engineering project after William Steinway made the decision to switch from horse power to electrification of street railway network. A great power plant, built on the East River at 1st Street and 27th Avenue, had a large reserve capacity that enabled it to furnish power for his piano factory and sell power the local residents.
Things suddenly took a quick turn. Daimler, beset by legal problems, could not contribute his share of the joint venture. Patience wore thin. “I have serious apprehensions as to monetary outlook,” William wrote in his diary, “and curse its draining me of money and resolve to stop it.”
William’s troubles where just beginning as his health was failing. A planned East River Tunnel linking the intersection of Vernon and Jackson with the Grand Central Terminal was halted after only a few months when a tremendous explosion killed and injured scores and literally rocked Hunters Point off its foundations.
In a scramble to retrench the Steinways sold their traction interests to a Philadelphia syndicate in the fall of 1895. The new entity, the New York & Queens Railway, went on to knit the scattered hamlets and villages of Queens together.
When William Steinway died in 1896 the Steinways liquidated their Daimler interests (the factory had built only one automobile) and stepped back from syndicates formed for transportation projects as the Queensboro Bridge and the East River Tunnel. Nephews studying engineering were called back to the factory to run departments that made pianos. The Daimler factory was destroyed in a 1907 fire.
The late Henry Z. Steinway, who had an office in Steinway Hall had a fascinating collection on Steinway memorabilia. One of the items was a map, attached to a prospectus, which outlined plans for vast New York metropolitan transit system. A single rail line linked New Jersey with Manhattan, Long Island, and New England. Tunnels were planned under the Hudson and the East Rivers. A viaduct headed up 21st Street and crossed into the Bronx by way of bridge over the Hell Gate.
Throughout the closing decades of the 19th century, the country remained in locked in depression. The Steinways never could raise money for their dream. It remained in a file cabinet for a century.
If William could have lived a few years into the 20th Century it would have been so different. Trusts and monopolies were able to command sums of money undreamed by families as wealthy as even the Steinways. By 1917, the Pennsylvania Railroad brushed off those plans and built the Sunnyside Yards, Pennsylvania Station, and a rail system that connected our city to both with New England as well as the American heartland. William’s New York subway network collected its first fare in 1904. The East River tunnel, still called the ‘Steinway Tubes,’ opened in 1915 (the 7 Train runs through it). By 1918 automobiles were commonplace.
If William had reached his mid-80s and he would have seen his dreams become reality.
One can argue that Long Island City, the Borough of Queens, the City of New York and our metropolitan region developed in the ways that it did because of those dreams the Steinways had while looking out over their village from a mansion on an Astoria hill.
Next: Renaissance Man
National Public Radio – 11/9/13
The Steinway piano company has a new owner. This fall, the investment firm Paulson & Co. — led by billionaire John Paulson — spent about $500 million and bought all of Steinway & Sons, the venerated piano maker.
The O.S. Kelly Foundry has been making Steinway’s plates since 1938. The plate is the cast-iron heart of a piano: It holds the steel wire strings with 40,000 pounds of tension, the company says. It allows vibrations to arise in a concert hall as music.
The plates are an old design. So is the Kelly foundry. Even the dust in this dark, echoing space seems a century old. This part of the operation is the “melt shop,” where two men pour cast-iron plates for all the Steinway pianos — that’s 4,000 plates a year…
Click Here to Continue Reading “In The Heat Of The Foundry, Steinway Piano ‘Hearts’ Are Made” on NPR.org
NYU News & Docs – 10/26/13
One interested buyer of the historic Steinway Mansion is backing up its plan of savior with support of residents, artists, and local businesses in Astoria, Queens. The Friends of Steinway Mansion (FoSM) is sponsoring a music festival that will run through November as they try to not only raise awareness about the mansion but the funds to buy it…
Click here to continue reading “Friends of Steinway Mansion Gains Support Through Music for Music”