Monday, February 9, 2015

The Lost Steinway Hall -- No. 109 E. 14th Street

photo by Wurts Bros. from the collection of the Museum of the City of New York

According to family history, Heinrich Engellhardt Steinweg wanted his son to learn music, so he crafted a small piano for him in 1834.   He merged the German and English construction methods, drawing the attention of musicians who commissioned their own instruments.  The beginnings of an astounding rise to fame and wealth had begun.

In 1850 Heinrich and his wife, Julianne, emigrated to New York with seven of their nine children (one son was already here, having sailed ahead to investigate the possibilities of opening a piano-making firm in America).  Once here Heinrich changed his name to Henry Engelhardt Steinway.   The eldest son, C. F. Theodore Steinweg, remained in German.

Henry and his older sons obtained jobs in New York piano firms, learning the American trade.  Three years later, on March 5, 1853, Henry, Charles and Henry Jr. established Steinway & Sons in “a curiously small edifice in Varick-street,” according to The New York Times a few years later.   The men crafted about one piano per week.  Son William was admitted to the firm in 1856 and Albert in 1866.

The quality of the Steinway instrument was unparalleled.   Only two years after opening the business, a Steinway piano won the gold medal at the Crystal Palace Exhibition of 1855.  In 1860 the “curiously small edifice” was abandoned for a large factory on Fourth (later renamed Park) Avenue between 52nd and 53rd Streets.  The Steinways continued to make improvements to the piano-forte; and in 1862 they took a daring move.

That was the year of the great London International Exhibition.  Steinway & Sons crated four piano-fortes and shipped them across the Atlantic.  The New York Times reported “The initiated know what those packages contain, and 265 of the initiated laugh into their sleeves at the idea of America sending piano-fortes to London,--to Europe.  Some of them speak about exporting coals to New-Castle; some of them are indignant at Yankee audacity; the kindliest shake their heads and pass on.  No one for a moment imagines that those iron-bound cases may contain something good, and so the good folk halloed whilst they were in the wood, and hearing their own shouts thought all was safe and jolly.”

The Europeans who scoffed at the Steinways were taken aback when the American pianos received the first prize.  The Steinway piano was now internationally acclaimed.  Upon their return to New York the firm laid plans for additional and necessary expansion.

On January 26, 1863 The Times reported “Messrs. Steinway & Sons, the eminent pianoforte makers, have purchased a large piece of ground adjoining Irving Hall, and running through from Fourteenth to Fifteenth streets, on which to erect show-rooms for their extensive business.  They have made provision also for a handsome concert-room, suitable for chamber-music, and capable of comfortably seating five or six hundred people.  A hall of this description has been long wanted.”

The neighborhood the Steinways had chosen was the fashionable Union Square, still surrounded by brick and brownstone mansions.  Steinway & Sons would be among the first incursions of commerce; but its choice of location was no doubt prompted by the proximity not only to Irving Hall, but to the Manhattan’s elite opera house, the Academy of Music.

A stereopticon view reveals the residential nature of the block surrounding the new building. (copyright expired)
The architect, John Kellum, designed the Steinway & Sons building to gently slip into the row of upscale homes along the north side of 14th Street.  He added a projecting portico to the handsome Italianate façade which breached the property line.  On March 23, 1893 the Common Council met to consider the building’s intrusion onto public property.  Before the men left the room they had resolved:

"That permission be and is hereby given to Messrs. Steinway & Sons to extend the columns forming their main entrance on the northerly side of Fourteenth-street, between Irving-place and Fourth-avenue, a distance not to exceed six feet beyond the line of the street.”  The Council made it clear that down the road the portico may have to be removed.  “The permission hereby granted to continue only through the will and pleasure of the Common Council.

Special approval was necessary for the projecting portico.  from the collection of the New York Public Library

On May 10, 1864 Steinway & Sons opened not only an additional wing to their factory, but the “new and magnificent marble wareroom in East fourteenth-street,” as reported in The New York Times the following day.  The newspaper added that the firm was “now the largest piano-forte markers in the world.  They employ many hundred hands, and use all the labor-saving machinery that has yet been discovered by themselves of others, to expedite the various processes.”

While facades of cast iron that mimicked carved stone were appearing throughout the city, the Steinway building was faced in white marble.  Four stories tall, its sedate countenance looked perhaps more like an elite school or civic building than a retail business.   The Times deemed it “an exceedingly handsome marble building—the handsomest, in our opinion, in the City—and admirably adapted for the uses intended.”

Esteemed citizens first were shown the new factory addition, then were entertained in the 14th Street building.  Following the reception here, speeches were made and well-known pianists performed.  “Here a collation was served, on the return of the guests, which was bounteous and excellent; that which satisfies the palate and that which make the wits sparkle were in abundance, and a most pleasant time was had.  There were, the active duties at the feast being through, good things said by Messrs. Watson, Willis, Morford, Du Salie, Mills, Ryan and Jones, and splendid playing on the ‘grand’ by Messrs. Mills, Sanderson, Groesbeck and Wood.”

The interiors of the first floor showrooms featured black walnut woodwork and marble mosaic flooring.  A stairway led to the second floor where the grand pianos were exhibited.  The top two floors were reserved for music rooms and rented musicians’ studios.

With soaring success came wrenching grief.  Because of his ill health, Charles had traveled to Europe in 1864.  The New York Times said “He placed himself under a physician, and patiently attained to convalescence.”  In the meantime, Henry, Jr. was suffering what the newspaper called “a long and painful illness.”  On Saturday morning, March 11, 1865, Henry succumbed to consumption at the age of 34. 

Exactly three weeks later, on April 1, “after a sickness of twenty-four days, of typhoid fever, Mr. Charles Steinway breathed his last in the house of his brother, Mr. Theodore Steinway, who represented the European branch of the business in that city,” reported The New York Times.

In florid Victorian prose, the newspaper announced the family’s second loss within a month.  “Death sweeps over the land with so swift and dark a wing, that we can hardly detect in its black shadow whose friend has fallen.  Whilst Mr. Albert Steinway was following the body of his chief—whom we all mourned with womanly eyes—to the grave, the news came from Europe that his brother had died.”

The loss of the two major forces in Steinway & Sons was potentially devastating for the firm.  Henry Sr. was now 68 years old and William, the only member of the firm now in New York was just 30.  The Times assured its readers, however, that the company would persevere.  “The operations of the house will be circumscribed by the calamity which has overtaken it.  Mr. Theodore Steinway will abandon the German branch of the establishment, and at once assume an active part in the headquarters at New-York.”

The symbols of mourning that decorated the Steinway building were brought out again two weeks later.  On April 15 President Abraham Lincoln was assassinated at Ford’s Theatre in Washington D.C.   April 19, the day of the funeral, was declared a National Day of Mourning.  The Times remarked on the appearance of houses, stores and other buildings; noting that the “extensive warerooms of Steinway & Sons, on Fourteenth-street…are markedly noticeable for effective arrangement of bunting and crape.”

As places of entertainment arose in the Union Square neighborhood, an unwanted by-product followed:  prostitution.  High class brothels crept into the upscale vicinity, much to the displeasure of the righteous Victorian women of the area.  On October 3, 1865 The Times reported “Yesterday afternoon a lady who had been annoyed by the inmates of Irene McCready’s palatial den, nearly opposite Steinway’s piano-forte warehouse, in East Fourteenth-street, made a complaint at Jefferson Market Police Court.”

A crew of officers “entered Miss McCready’s gorgeous parlors at about 11 o’clock, and at once investigated the house and made prisoners” of eleven women.   The male patrons “who had ‘never before been in the house,’” were released with an admonition while the prostitutes were jailed.  The newspaper described the brothel as “most expensively furnished, the parlors alone having cost $10,000.”  It added “Mr. Steinway is resolved that she shall move from East Fourteenth-street.”

In the spring of 1866 Steinway & Sons embarked on an expensive and brilliant marketing scheme.  On May 26 the cornerstone was laid for Steinway Hall, adjoining the showroom building to the rear.  The Mayor and “a number of managers, artists and reporters” assisted in the ceremony.

A proper concert hall, it would include dressing rooms, two balconies, a stage that could accommodate a full 100-piece orchestra, and seating for 2,500 persons.  Interestingly, the Steinways designed the structure themselves, forgoing the services of an architect.  William Steinway would later famously remark “One concert on Saturday night sells pianos on Monday morning.”

The new hall, costing $90,786 (about $1.4 million today) rivaled, if not surpassed, any other in the city.  But it was used as much for lectures as it was for musical events.  It was here in 1867 and 1868 that Charles Dickens gave readings of his own works.  In December 1867 J. D. Reymert delivered an “elaborate lecture” regarding the famine in Sweden which had claimed many lives and left 200,000 without food.

Harper's Weekly published an etching of the line for tickets to hear Charles Dickens in 1867 -- from the collection of the Library of Congress
Over the coming years Steinway Hall would be the scene of the American debuts of the famous Swedish soprano Chrstina Nilsson, pianist Anton Rubinstein, and violinist Henri Wieniawski.  Mark Twain addressed the audience here as did Edwin Forrest; and patrons thrilled to the voice of Adelina Patti.  When Madame Parepa-Rosa appeared in a “grant oratorio performance” on February 20, 1868, The Times called it “the best oratorio performance every heard in America;” added that “the ‘house’ was the largest ever brought together in Steinway Hall;” and said “Of Mme. Parepa-Rosa’s singing we have nothing to say.  It was simply perfect.” 

A rather bizarre event in the Hall occurred on June 2, 1870.  The Times reported that “‘The daughter of Lola Montez’ was introduced by Mrs. E. C. Stanton at Steinway Hall to a small audience last evening as ‘the Princess Editha, daughter of King Leopold and the Countess of Landsfeldt,’ and delivered a lecture, in which she took ground against ‘woman’s rights.’  She railed against King Leopold and “her cousin, Queen Victoria.”  The article closed saying “She was richly dressed in low-necked costume, and carried a man’s hat in her hand.  She gave notice that henceforth she would appear in the streets in the suit of man’s clothes.”

In 1872 the firm boasted the production of ten pianos per day -- from the collection of the New York Public Library

In the meantime, customers in the 14th Street could expect to pay high prices for instruments described in newspapers as “of the most elegant and valuable nature.”  On Christmas Day 1872 the firm advertised square pianos ranging in price from $550 to $1,000 and grand pianos from $1,050 to $1,600—more than $32,000 in today’s dollars.  If the shopper desired “the fancy-wood and inlaid pianos,” he could expect to pay an even higher price.

Following the assassination of President Garfield, a concert by Mme. Pauline Canissa was held in the Hall for the benefit of his mother on December 2, 1881.  She was accompanied by the full orchestra of Theodore Thomas.  The German-born conductor was the most highly-esteemed in America and his orchestra would give annual concert series in Steinway Hall for years.

The Theodore Thomas Orchestra poses on the stage of Steinway Hall -- from the collection of the Library of Congress
Within a decade the entertainment district was moving northward and Union Square was ringed with commercial buildings and offices.  On May 3, 1890 The New York Times reported the startling.  The evening before H. E. Krehbiel delivered a lecture on “The Precursors of the Pianoforte.”  The newspaper noted “With Mr. Krehbiel’s lecture Steinway Hall closed its noble record of nearly a quarter of a century as a place of musical and literary entertainment.  It begins to-day a humbler but still a very useful career as a place of storage for the pianos manufactured by its owners.”

The article went on to list the luminaries who had performed here, including the singers, pianists and organists, and the conductors (along with Theodore Thomas were Walter Damrosch, Anton Seidl and Carl Bergmann, among others).    Victor Herbert appeared here after his command performance before the Court of Wurtemberg.  The newspaper said “This is only a part of the list that Steinway Hall can boast of, and it is doubtful if any other four walls in the country have heard the same amount of good music.  To music-loving New-Yorkers the news of the close of its career comes like the announcement of the death of an old friend.”  But, explained the newspaper, “Fourteenth Street has grown pretty far down town for concert entertainment, and besides that the Messrs. Steinway need the space of the old hall for storage purposes.”

Just as Union Square became less acceptable for a concert hall, the upscale shopping districts had moved northward as well.  Other piano manufacturers opened new up-to-date showrooms on Fifth Avenue.  But Steinway, at least for now, remained.  On October 4, 1900 company secretary Nahum Stetson “emphatically denied” that the building at No. 109 East 14th Street had been sold; although he admitted to reporters that “the property has been the subject of more or less active negotiations at one time or another.”

By the turn of the century, the houses on either side of Steinway & Sons had been converted for business purposes -- photo Byron & Co. from the collection of the Museum of the City of New York

Pianos continued to be sold from the lower floors and musicians, composers and teachers leased the studios.  On August 30, 1908 the New-York Tribune noted that “Gustav L. Becker, concert pianist, teacher, and composer, has returned from abroad and resumed teaching at his studio in Steinway Hall, No. 109 East Fourteenth Street.”

Then in 1910 Steinway & Sons finally let go of their white marble building.  Montifiore G. Kahn purchased it for $1.215 million as “an investment.”  He told reporters “he felt in view of the favorable location and the historical associations of Steinway Hall that the investment was a good one and he meant to retain the property.”

Nevertheless, Steinway remained as a tenant.  On July 4, 1916 The New York Times reported “Following the northern trend of trade, Steinway & Sons, piano manufacturers, whose offices and salesrooms have been on East Fourteenth Street, for the last fifty-eight years, have purchased a new home site on West Fifty-seventh Street and will erect a ten-story building, estimated to cost about $500,000.”

And yet it would be another seven years before the new headquarters was completed.   In the interim, somewhat surprisingly, in October 1921, after decades of use as a warehouse, Steinway Hall was the scene of a concert again.   The Times reported that pianist Yolando Mero would play in the auditorium “dedicated by Barona-Rosa Oct. 31. 1867, and popularly abandoned since the early nineties to its memories of Patti, Rubinstein, Pachmann and MacDowell.”

But any hopes of resurrection were short lived.  As Steinway & Sons prepared to move to West 57th Street, the hearts of musicians nationwide sank.  On May 5, 1923 The Music Trade Review wrote “The announcement that Steinway Hall on East Fourteenth street, New York, has passed from the hands of Steinway & Sons marks the end of what is beyond all probability the greatest musical landmark, not only in this city, but in the United States.”  The Review added “When the day comes for the structure to be razed it will be one of which no musician and no piano man, no matter what may be his affiliation, can think without a feeling of regret.”

The auditorium was captured on film just prior to the building's demolition.  The unusual vantage point is from the stage, looking toward wide entrance hall -- from the collection of the Library of Congress

The coming of that day was not far off.  The Steinway building was purchased by the S. Klein Union Square Realty Corporation the same month.   The dignified white marble structure was razed and on January 6, 1926 the cornerstone of Klein’s Department store, designed by B. W. Berger & Son was laid.

Today the 29-story Zeckendorf Towers, completed in 1987, stands on the site.  Lost to memory is that the most important concert hall in America, the stage of which saw the most celebrated figures in music and literature, once stood here.

1 comment:

  1. Just wanted to add, in case anyone comes across this and has an interest in the Steinway family, the Smithsonian's website has a digitalized version of William Steinway's diary, which is searchable by both keyword and date. I ran across it a while back and although it's pretty straightforward (no deep reflection really), it's got lots of interesting little tidbits. He wrote about neighbors and friends, entertaining, vacations and outings on the Hudson, and even some historical events such as the 1863 Draft Riots.