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Parsing The Steinway Mansion's Rich Past & Uncertain Future

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Welcome back to Curbed Classics, a column in which writer Evan Bindelglass traces the history of a classic New York City building. Have a building to nominate for a future installment? Please suggest it to the tipline.

On a hill in Astoria, there is a house that dates back to before the Civil War. It is the only one on its block, and that's an understatement. It is the Steinway Mansion, located at 18-33 41st Street (between 19th Avenue and Berrian Boulevard), and the campaign is on to save it for the future. The mansion's recent troubles finding an buyer and the growing preservation movement centered on it, though, obscure its rich past and its parallels to other developments in New York City history and American culture.

Let's start at the beginning, which is about halfway through the 19th century. An optician (well, he also sold telescopes and other instruments) originally from England, named Benjamin Pike, Jr., and his father, Benjamin Pike, Sr., wanted a new house for their family. So, a plot of land then 440 acres in size was picked in Queens, and a two-story, 27-room granite house was built there. The style was known as Italianate villa.

There are varying dates given for the house's completion, but they're all between 1840 and 1858 (the most commonly cited year). A nod towards its first resident, there are even glass panes with optical instruments engraved on them. There is no record of who the architect was, but Bob Singleton, executive director of the Greater Astoria Historical Society, believes it might have been a man named Josiah Whitney (not this one), whose family built many homes in the Old Astoria village.

Fast forward to 1967, when the Landmarks Preservation Commission recognized the house in its designation report (warning: PDF!), describing the house's layout as "rambling and asymmetrical."

The central element is a two-storied, T-shaped section. The vertical projection toward the north is a central hall, two full stories in height. The main entrance opens on this hall from the river side. There are several parlors, a dining room and kitchen on the first floor and handsome bedrooms on the second floor. The west end of the cross-section burgeons into a striking four-story tower containing additional living quarters. The areas which fit into the intersections of the "T" are occupied on the west by a one-story library-den and on the east by an open porch. Other porches and terraces flank the South and East.

[All interior photos courtesy Gary Vollo.]

Now that you can picture it, back to the Pikes. Unfortunately, the family didn't get to enjoy the house for very long, with both Benjamin Jr. and Sr. dying in the 1860s. According to Singleton, following their deaths, the elder Pike's widow sold the house for $127,000.

Now this is where things get really interesting. But first we must step back a few years before we can re-arrive at 1870 with its next tenants.

It's 1850, and approximately 50-year-old Heinrich Steinweg is living with his wife and family, making musical instruments in the small town of Seesen, Germany. But then political instability led him to take most of his family across the Atlantic Ocean to the United States. Son Theodore, though, stayed behind.

Here, he and his accompanying sons anglicized their names (Heinrich Steinweg became Henry Steinway) and formed a new piano company Steinway & Sons, with son William as president.

According to Singleton, son Henry, Jr. "won acclaim with adding the middle or sostenuto pedal to the piano and with revolutionizing the stringing of the harp thereby greatly enhancing its tone—two breakthroughs that brought the world's attention to the firm. Of poor health, Henry Jr. died in his mid-thirties, leaving us to imagine what was left unaccomplished."

Back in Germany, Theodore continued Henry, Jr.'s work and did things such as set the standard length of the grand piano and create the modern upright piano (which Steinway calls the "vertical"), earmarking its height at five feet.

The Steinways continued making music, as it were, with a factory at Park Avenue and East 53rd Street in Manhattan, and this brings us to 1863 and the New York City draft riots. If you saw the movie "Gangs of New York," that's what we're talking about here. Military proscription wasn't something that everybody liked. Violent riots broke out and angry mobs took over the streets. One such mob headed towards the Steinway factory, but employees were were ready. Armed workers took position in the windows, some cash changed hands, and the mob backed off.

But things got worse. There were labor disputes and then, to top it all off, Steinway & Sons was in desperate need of space to expand. So William Steinway sent agents out to Long Island City (which at the time bled into Astoria) to find a spot to relocate. They found the massive, mostly vacant, estate on which the Pike family house was sitting. That brings us to 1870, and the sale of the mansion from the Pike family to the Steinway family. Heinrich Steinweg died in 1871, but had he lived, he surely would have been proud of what his son did.

"The Long Island City community [was] a perfect fit," Singleton said. "A directory at that time lists a thriving population of carpenters, cabinet makers, carvers, workers in tin and brass, plasterers and masons, milliners and machinists, carpet weavers, sewers of fabrics, makers of furniture and pottery, and dealers of lumber and rare veneers. The local cultural scene was rich in music and song."

He added, "The Steinways found kindred spirits here. They found success beyond their wildest dreams."

[The front of the Steinway Mansion when the Steinways lived there, and the front as it is today. Historical photo from the Greater Astoria Historical Society, Henry Z. Steinway Collection; contemporary photo courtesy Gary Vollo.]

The new Steinway & Sons factories, of course, would be built in Astoria. But their presence was heard around the city. To tell the whole story of the Steinways' impact would take more space than this long-winded writer has been given. But here's a snippet.

Steinway Hall, which opened at 71-73 East 14th Street in Manhattan in 1866, was one of of America's premiere concert venues. Famous pianists would be brought in from around the world to show off their talents on a Steinway piano. It was a great way to sell them. Plus, artists were sent out to tour.

William Steinway built a waterfront amusement park on the North Shore. He built trolley lines, and motorized them. Those lines would become today's MTA bus routes in Queens. The family built a public bath house, a firehouse, a post office, a public school, churches, one of the nation's first kindergartens, and what would become today's Queens Library. In fact, there is still a Steinway branch with a portrait of William Steinway inside.

[Frederick T. Steinway, Henry W. T. Steinway, cousin Julia Ziegler, Constantin Schodt, and cousin George A. Steinway in front of the mansion, and the mansion's steps as they appear today. Historical photo from the Greater Astoria Historical Society, Henry Z. Steinway Collection; contemporary photo courtesy Gary Vollo.]

Those piano makers from Germany brought a mass of prosperity to Astoria. According to Singleton, within 20 years, there were more than 7,000 people living in what was known as the Steinway Settlement. "He wanted to develop that area not just as a company town in the sense of Pullman, but he wanted to develop it," Henry Z. Steinway, William's grandson, told documentary filmmaker Jim Sabastian. "So, he attracted other industries." There was the now defunct Astoria Silk Works, plus cabinet makers and other craftsmen.

[Children on the front steps of the Steinway Mansion and the front of the mansion as it appears today. Historical photo from the Greater Astoria Historical Society, Henry Z. Steinway Collection; contemporary photo courtesy Gary Vollo.]

William Steinway also met Gottlieb Daimler (yes, that Daimler) in 1888 and formed a partnership. He opened their first automobile factory on Steinway Street between 20th Avenue and 20th Road in 1890. The venture wouldn't last, but it was still way ahead of its time. "Henry Ford was still feeding teaspoons of gasoline to an experimental motor in his wife's kitchen," Singleton said. The Ford Model T wouldn't come out until 1908.

William Steinway was head of the commission that planned the New York City subway in the 1890s. He dreamed of a rail link to North Beach, where LaGuardia Airport sits today—a dream still unrealized. Steinway was also one of the early backers of what would be today's Ed Koch Queensboro Bridge. He even backed initial construction of train tubes under the East River. Though the project was halted in part due to deadly blowouts, it would eventually be completed; if you take the 7 train between Manhattan and Queens, you will go through the Steinway Tunnel.

[The Steinway Mansion from around the time the Steinway family owned it and as it appears in present day. Historical photo from the Greater Astoria Historical Society, Henry Z. Steinway Collection; contemporary photo courtesy Gary Vollo.]

William Steinway died in 1896. But the company went on and the family maintained ownership of the mansion for over two more decades.

Enter Jack Halberian, an Armenian who had fled Turkey as a teenager and ended up as a tailor living on 28th Street between Second and Third avenues in Manhattan. His son Michael told Sabastian that his father and friends would make their way out to the North Beach amusement park that Steinway had built. He looked up from the trolley, saw Steinway Mansion, and said that one day he would buy that house. While it's not clear exactly what year that was, it wasn't long before the Steinways put it on the market and Jack Halberian bought it up in 1926. When he and his wife moved in, they found a surprise. The utilities had been previously been connected to the Steinway factory, and with the sale, they were cut. So, Halberian had to plead to get his house new water, heat, and electricity lines.

There were some very tough times for Jack Halberian. Though for a while, he had to rent rooms to other families, he never lost the house. Michael Halberian maintained it for decades after his father's death, adding items including a motorized central chandelier—just like the one that raises up before performances at the Metropolitan Opera House at Lincoln Center.

Remember, the house was declared a landmark in 1967. It was actually one of the first sites declared so in the wake of the tragic demolition of the old Penn Station, which sparked the passing of New York City's landmarks law.

Eventually the mansion's upkeep became too much for Michael and, in 2010, he put the house on the market. He died later that year and since then, his children have been trying to sell it.

That brings us today. The initial asking price for the mansion was $5 million. But that had gone down to $1.9 million as of summer 2013. Now, Queens Buzz reports that the home is under contract to a private buyer. But preservation group Friends of Steinway Mansion hopes to acquire the house, pictured in the listings photos above and elsewhere, so that it can be restored and preserved as a museum. It includes, among other things, five bedrooms, a grotto, a tower, a pub, a billiard room, a sauna, and a hot tub flanked by lion statues.

"Aware of our community's outstanding legacy, a distinguished lineup of representatives from politics, business, culture and the arts came together late last year to create the Friends of Steinway Mansion. Their intention is to purchase and restore the Steinway mansion—and the grounds around it—to make it accessible to the public as a museum and learning center," Singleton said.

Proponents note that the grounds of the mansion are an oasis of green in a heavily industrial area, and could be a great place for fundraising events. "The mansion's location is exceptional," Singleton added. "Located near the city's transportation center, it is adjacent to LaGuardia Airport and the Triborough (R.F.K.) Bridge. Subway and bus service are near." As far as we know, no closing has taken place. So there is still time to make the home a place for the people.

The Steinway Mansion today is an amalgam of immigrant history, opulence of eras past created as a result of burgeoning industry, and an all-too-common battle between real estate interests and preservation aims. Needless to say, the home has come a long way since the 1850s. It might serve everyone well to keep in mind this poem, translated from the German, which was supposedly the Steinway family motto and is perhaps applicable to their house as well:

He who knows his trade is a Journeyman,
A Master is he that invents the plan,

An Apprentice is each and every man. —Evan Bindelglass is a local freelance journalist, photographer, cinephile, and foodie. You can e-mail him, follow him on Twitter @evabin, or check out his personal blog.
· All Steinway Mansion coverage [Curbed]
· Curbed Classics archive [Curbed]

Steinway Mansion

18-33 41st St, Astoria, NY 11105