Tuesday, January 21, 2014

The 1920 Sohmer Piano Bldg. -- No. 31 West 57th Street

photo http://www.vnony.com/portfolio/property/31-west-57th-street/28/overview

Just after the turn of the last century Jacob Rothschild lived among some of Manhattan’s most socially-prominent citizens.   The block of West 57th Street where he lived was lined with the brownstone-fronted Italianate rowhouses of a generation earlier and exuberant Beaux Arts replacements like the mansion at No. 35--two doors away--built by Margaret Vanderbilt Shepard for her daughter Maria and new son-in-law, William Jay Schieffelin.  At the Fifth Avenue corner of the block stood the hulking, block-wide chateau of Cornelius Vanderbilt III.

The Schieffelin mansion had been home to Samuel Bowne since 1899 and in between that house and Rothschild’s lived lawyer Edward S. Rapallo in the subdued brownstone at No. 33.  Jacob Rothschild’s varied interests and abilities had made him what The New York Times deemed “one of the wealthiest merchants, real estate operators and hotel men of the city.”

On April 4, 1911 the 68-year old millionaire died in the house following a severe stroke.  His death coincided with changes that were already being noticed in the neighborhood.  It had all started a decade earlier when John Jacob Astor demolished mansions at the southeast corner of Fifth Avenue and 55th Street for his high-end St. Regis Hotel.  As millionaires avoided the encroaching commerce, fleeing northward along Central Park, their mansions were altered or razed for business buildings.  The Rothschild mansion would soon join them. 

On November 20, 1913 The New York Times reported that Dunstan, Incorporated “one of the oldest dressmaking concerns in the city,” had taken a long-term lease on the house.  The firm announced it would make “extensive alterations.”

In the meantime Sohmer & Company was following the northward trend, as well.  The long-established piano firm had started on 14th Street; then moved to No. 170 Fifth Avenue in 1898; then to No. 315 Fifth Avenue in July of 1909.  The highly-competitive piano business in New York City kept the company’s directors constantly aware of the need to change business practices—or location.

In 1919 the need to move once again was evident.  Before long the piano and organ district would be centered along West 57th Street and Sohmer would be one of the pioneers in the movement.   On May 3 the Real Estate Record and Guide reported that “Sohmer & Co. make the announcement that negotiations have just been completed for the leasing for a long term of years, the property at 31 West 57th Street.”  It signaled the end of the line for the Rothschild residence.  “The present building will be razed and there will be erected by Sohmer & Co. a six-story building, all of which will be occupied in the conduct of their piano business.”

On June 7, 1919 The Music Trades reported that Harry J. Sohmer and his wife were “compelled to return to New York last Monday on account of matters pertaining to the new building now being planned by Sohmer & Co. for early erection on West Fifty-seventh Street, that required his attention.  Mr. Sohmer said they were making good progress with the plans and sketches and work on the new building would be started soon.”

Indeed, work got started soon.  Two months later, on August 30, The Music Trades noted “Demolition of the building occupying the site of the new Sohmer structure was begun last week, and the work of construction will be pushed rapidly from this time on.”

Sohmer & Co. had chosen architect Randolph H. Almiroty for its $100,000 home.  “The building will have an Italian façade and will be constructed throughout with the idea of making it one of the most complete piano salons in the country,” said the Record and Guide.  “The top floor will house the executive and accounting departments, both wholesale and retail.”

In reporting on the planned structure, the Real Estate Record and Guide noted the changes on West 57th.  “Real estate experts and those competent to know are all agreed that 57th street is destined to become one of the famous streets of the world—the ‘Bond Street’ of America.”

Construction was completed within the year and Sohmer & Co. opened its doors for business in October 1920.  Almiroty’s handsome Italian-inspired façade retained the proportions of the surviving former residences that surrounded it, creating a harmonious flow.

The double-height, rusticated ground floor base supported four floors of understated and dignified design that demanded little attention.  An 32-foot arched opening at ground floor however presented a dramatic introduction to the showrooms.
In 1922 the two houses on either side of the Sohmer Building had been converted to businesses -- photo by Wurtz Bros. from the collection of the Museum of the City of New York http://collections.mcny.org/C.aspx?VP3=SearchResult_VPage&VBID=24UAYW5T4L1N&SMLS=1&RW=1366&RH=579

The firm's opening announcement on October 9 said "The building was especially designed and erected" for the display of  "Sohmer Pianos--Grands, Uprights, Player-Pianos--and Victor Victrolas."  "Every detail has been planned to afford a perfect environment in which to display the exquisite beauties of the Sohmer Piano."

Before long other piano dealers would follow the lead to West 57th Street.  Further west was the handsome Steinway Building which included Steinway Hall, and in 1924 the Chickering Piano firm opened its 13-story Chickering Hall next door to Sohmer & Co. at No. 29.  Then in 1934 Hardman, Peck & Co. moved into the old Edward Rapallo house on the other side at No. 33 West 57th Street.  Following Almiroty’s example, the street level was renovated to a similar double-height glass-paned arch.

A clever marketing scheme devised by Sohmer in 1933 was its annual National Piano Playing Tournament.  School-aged pianists from New York and the vicinity entered the three-day contest, vying for national, state or district certificates of honor.  The children were graded according to their excellence as compared to their age and length of time they had studied.

The stark difference in the youthful attire of the 1930s and today is evident in The New York Times report on the competition on June 9, 1939.  “Immaculate in starched white frocks and natty blue coats, the girls and boys, respectively--with the former outnumbering the latter by three to one--were nervous at first, but soon lost themselves in the spirit of the occasion.  Although both judges and parents were forced by the rules of the tournament to sit behind screens, the players knew they were there and did their best to prove their knowledge of the piano and its part in music.”

After manufacturing pianos in New York for 110 years, Sohmer & Co. moved its factory to Connecticut in 1982.  The company was making at the time about 3,000 instruments per year.  In announcing the move, the Sohmer management promised that the 57th Street showroom would remain.

But only two years later it was gone.

In December 1984 the Rizzoli International Bookstore announced its plan to move into the former Sohmer Piano Building.  Like Sohmer, Rizzoli intended to use the entire building—the lower three stories being used as the main bookstore while the upper floors were reserved for imported books, stationery items and related products.

Three months later the Rizzoli bookstore was opened with a grand champagne reception.  Along with the facade, the firm’s architects sensitively preserved the original elegant Italian interiors.  The delicate, carved-in-place plaster ceiling ornamentation was gently updated by adding a Italian fresco glaze.  A few vintage fixtures from Rizzoli’s old Fifth Avenue location were integrated; including four hand-crafted chandeliers, cherry woodwork, and the hand-carved marble doorframe.

Within a generation New Yorkers had forgotten that the beautiful building at No. 31 West 57th Street had not always been the Rizzoli Building.  The vaulted ceilings, the old world atmosphere and the warm racks of books were as familiar to some Manhattanites as their own living room.

As the 20th century came to a close, the Schieffelin mansion had lost its lower floors to be replaced by a flat-faced commercial façade; the Rapallo mansion held on to its 1930s storefront and Victorian upper floors; but the Sohmer Building was virtually intact, inside and out.  By now the West 57th Street block had drastically changed and the three survivors were essentially the last relics of a far more elegant era.

Then as 2013 drew to a close the LeFrak real estate family and Vornado Realty Trust, owners of the three structures, announced plans to demolish the buildings for an unspecified project.  The Landmarks Preservation Commission considered the Sohmer & Co. Building and decided it “lacks the architectural significance necessary to meet the criteria for designation as an individual landmark.”

The hearts of preservationists, historians, and lovers of Manhattan in general dropped.  Interestingly, the three picturesque structures represent the three rapid-fire developments of the block:  The Rapallo house is a surviving example of the first period of rowhouse construction; the Schieffelin mansion represents the second, fashionable period; and the Sohmer Building the commercial period.

Look fast, though.  It appears fairly certain that the charming buildings will not last much longer.


  1. Disappointing that the NYC Landmarks Preservation Commission of all groups should be so dismissive and disinterested in saving this building. The interior alone, a remainder of its life as a piano showroom, is landmark quality, the Rizzoli bookstore is a NYC cultural and civic institution in this era of tablets, Ipads and Kindels. The entire 3 building row should be preserved as the Coty building grouping was on 5th Ave. Let the developers work to preserve this piece of NYC history and still be allowed to build their boring glass high-rise condo for billionaries behind them. The Landmarks Board has made some shameful and embarassing decisions over the past decade and this will surely be one of their greatest blunders. If this is not landmark worthy then tell me what in the hell is a landmark supposed to represent? The other 2 former townhouse facades should also receieve the same attention from the Landmarks Commission. NYC is rapidly changing and not for the better. Robert Tierney please resign, you are an embarassment to your position. RT

  2. I am an assistant manager at Rizzoli Bookstore. I'd like to thank you for posting this wonderful article about the history our building.

    For any of your readers interested in saving a beautiful jewel of Gilded Age New York, an online petition has been started to demand the Landmarks Preservation Commission hold a public hearing to designate 31 W 57th a landmark:


    We'd also like to encourage everyone to send letters to Robert Tierney and the Landmarks Commission urging them to schedule a public hearing to vote on landmarking 31 W 57th, as well as Chickering Hall at 29 W 57 that is owned by Vornado and could be demolished.

  3. I said it in a previous post, and I'll say it again...Mr. Tierney and the other members of the NYC Landmarks and Preservation Commission appear to be in the pockets of the developers.

    If they demolish such gems as these structures, they have gutted any credibility or even a need for a "preservation commission" in New York.

    Congratulations Mr. Tierney, the preservation board members, and your buddies in the Frack & Vornado companies, on laying waste to the architectural and historic treasures of America's greatest city that you are supposedly in a position to protect.

    When these treasures are gone, they are gone forever.