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
Click here to read Queens Courier, “Music for the Mansion” feature
The Friends of Steinway Mansion, a non-profit organization, have begun a fundraising campaign with the goal of purchasing the Astoria home located at 18-22 41st Street. This collation of businesses, community groups and individuals want to purchase the Steinway Mansion and use it as a public space.
The mansion was used as a summer home for the Steinway family and has been a part of the Astoria community for 155 years.
“The Steinway Mansion has always been an important part of our community,” said Bob Singleton, executive director of the Greater Astoria Historical Society and founder of the Friends of Steinway Mansion.
Under his leadership, the group has begun a music series that will take place on selected dates over the next two months to raise funds, with more initiatives in the works.
“We have active plans to expand both fundraising and public awareness to a much broader area,” he said. “We’ve been noticing that we are getting interest from outside of the immediate area.”
Michele Kazarian, executrix of Steinway Mansion, has lowered the price from $1.9 million to $1 million, but will only include three of the seven plots of land in the sale.
“I think it’s best that we purchase the building and all of the surrounding property,” said Singleton. “It would be a poor reflection of the city if harm came to this property.”
Singleton said the fundraising has been going well, and urged community members to sign a petition at www.steinwaymansion.org.
The Friends of Steinway Mansion hopes funds will be left over after purchasing the building in order to make it ADA accessible and bring the facility up to code.
“The faster the community pulls together and gets behind this effort, the faster we will be able to enjoy this place,” said Singleton. “We really need to see an end to this fundraising campaign and at least secure the property.”
October 8, 2013 / Astoria Neighborhood / Queens History / Queens Buzz. They reminded me a bit of George Washington’s rag tag band, scurrying from pitched battle to pitched battle, never really winning … until the end … because of their unyielding will and their relentless pursuit of the greater good. This is a story about the Friends of the Steinway Mansion.
In 2010 Michael Halberian, the longest living inhabitant of the Steinway Mansion, put it on the market, likely knowing at the age of 83, that his time here on the planet was limited. After a flurry of publicity and verbal support for preserving the Steinway Mansion by Queens government officials, interest in it died down shortly after Michael’s death in December of 2010.
But not everyone lost interst … click here to read our report on an effort to preserve the Steinway Mansion by its Friends and transform it into a world class museum….
Click here to continue reading Queens Next Great Museum? – Queens Buzz
September 26, 2013
The evolution of modern Queens, New York City and even the entire United States can be traced to one house on 41st Street in Astoria, says Bob Singleton.
That house is the Steinway Mansion, at 18-33 41st St., and Singleton is on a mission to make sure people understand the significance of the home built by music.
“The Steinway Mansion represents what our city is all about,” said Singleton, executive director of Friends of Steinway Mansion. “This was an immigrant family that came to New York City and succeeded at so much. That is something anyone who has lived in New York at any time can understand.”
Singleton and his group plan a series of events, beginning this weekend, in their efforts to raise $5 million to purchase the home and grounds. Once they buy the property, the Friends will begin raising money to restore the mansion and turn it into a public space for eduction and music.
On Saturday the Friends’ fund-raiser will be at SingleCut Beersmiths, at 19-33 37th St. in Astoria. The event starts at 8 p.m. and includes performances by The Dru Cutler and The Heart & Hand Band. Admission is free, but donations will be accepted to support the mission.
Singleton suggests people arrive around 6 p.m. for a pre-show rally.
“Come early and we’ll walk over to the mansion and hold up signs,” said Singleton. “We want to show the world that New York wants to save the mansion.”
Currently a city landmark, the building cannot be torn down, but until someone steps in to purchase it the house will continue to decay.
For the Friends of Steinway Mansion, the building represents everything the family did in the fields of business, transportation and entertainment, said Singleton.
When William Steinway developed Steinway Settlement as a utopian village for his company’s workers in northwest Queens, he quickly realized getting there would prove to be difficult, said Singleton. So naturally Steinway put in streetcar lines to connect the village to the rest of New York.
From there, Steinway became involved in designing the borough’s transportation system.
“He created a transit network knitting together the various villages and hamlets of Queens,” said Singleton. “The No. 7 train tunnels [under the East River] are still called the Steinway tubes.”
And it wasn’t just trains that received Steinway’s attention.
A decade before Henry Ford delved into the automobile world, the Steinways formed an alliance with Gottlieb Daimler to sell gasoline engines. They also assembled Mercedes vehicles in their Astoria factory, said Singleton.
Because they made their fortune creating pianos, a lot of their achievements are related to music, said Singleton.
They brought performers from Europe and sponsored their national tours. The family also built Steinway Hall, on 14th Street in Manhattan, in 1866. This became the epicenter of the city’s culture and even housed the New York Philharmonic until Carnegie Hall opened in 1891.
Part of the fund-raising effort is to bring music into the Steinway Mansion, said Singleton.
He eventually hopes to form partnerships with schools and families with children to turn the mansion into a teaching facility.
“I see this as a place to teach artisan art and craftsmen art,” said Singleton. “It will be a wonderful place for young people to explore their creativity.”
©2013 COMMUNITY NEWSPAPER GROUP