If you were to guess what the most intricate thing being made in America today is, chances are you wouldn’t imagine that it’s a piano. Almost entirely still hand made and assembled in Queens, New York after 160 years, Steinway pianos are known the world over. Lesser known, is the fact that Steinway & Sons shaped the history of Queens when they created an entire utopian village out of the marshlands we now call Astoria. At the Steinway factory, where a combination of decades old machines, and new, cutting-edge ones are still producing a 1000 instruments a year, discover the remarkable history of the family that made so much more than just pianos…
Walking into the elegant Steinway factory in Astoria, one of the first things you notice is what is missing– the sound of a piano. What does hit you however is the smell of sawdust, and the distant sounds of sanding, delicate hammering and wood being sawn. It’s more like walking into a master craftsman carpenter’s guild in old Europe rather than a modern factory in Queens.
It takes half a dozen careful hands to gently coerce the wood into the shape of a grand piano, using presses invented by Steinway & Sons themselves. The making of the rim is just the beginning of a journey from the lumberyard, to trimming the wood, making the bridge, notching, stringing, key weighing, regulating the action before being sent to the pounding room, where the piano is first played and endlessly tweaked to ensure perfection, before the case is finished. The entire process takes nearly a year.
Often, the secret techniques used to make a Steinway are passed down in the age old tradition from master craftsman to apprentice, generation after generation. Each stage of making the piano has the creator’s name written on it. Story has it that one old Steinway sent to Astoria for renovation was taken apart, only for one of the craftsmen to see his grandfather’s name chalked on part of the piano that been hidden from view since it was written there decades before.
The company had a remarkably humble beginning. An illiterate orphan from Wolfshagen, Germany called Heinrich Engelhard Steinweg started as a carpenter and cabinet maker. He began making his own instruments, particularly pianos, before migrating with his family to New York in 1850. He changed his name to Henry Steinway, creating Steinway & Sons the same year.From 1996 through 2013 the company traded on the stock exchange under the ticker symbol LVB, which stood for Ludwig van Beethoven. In 2013, the company was acquired and taken private by current owner Paulson & Company.
When the younger Henry Steinway reported on his first day at work to his father, he was told: “Henry, I am glad you are here. You are going to get a start where I did.” Henry, initially ecstatic, was soon puzzled as his father led him to the basement where he stopped by the maintenance foreman’s office, laconically stating “he’s yours” and walked away.
Steinway and his sons swiftly showed their natural talents as piano makers working at the forefront of innovation and essentially developing the modern grand piano. Such was their success, they moved to a larger factory on Park Avenue, before building a factory in Queens, where they still are today.
Each piece of wood used inside a Steinway is meticulously examined. “We use different types of woods based on their purpose within the piano”, explains Anthony Gilroy of Steinway & Sons. “The wood for the soundboard is Alaskan Sitka Spruce – which is a very light and musical wood – but also strong. We have longtime relationships with lumber companies in different areas…”
But making some of the world’s finest pianos is just part of the Steinway story; what is little known is just how much the family shaped New York society…
In 1866, Henry Steinway’s son William opened Manhattan’s grandest music venue. ‘Steinway Hall’ was four stories tall, faced in immaculate white marble, and designed by the Steinway’s themselves without hiring architects. It could house a full orchestra, had seating enough for 2,500 people, and was adorned with gas lighting throughout.
It became New York’s principal concert hall, home to the New York Philharmonic and was also used for public events such as lectures by Charles Dickens when he first came to America. Cleverly, concert goers had to walk through the showrooms en route to their seats, passing by the range of Steinway pianos for sale. As William Steinway remarked, “one concert on Saturday night sells pianos on Monday morning.”
But perhaps the greatest contribution the family made to New York was the developing of an entire new part of the city in Queens. In the 1870s, William Steinway in his waders, trudged through the marshlands of what is now Astoria, charting out a 400 acre site. It was here that the Steinway’s greatest vision was realized– a complete utopian village.
“It would take a book for you to write of their accomplishments”, explains Robert Singleton. Steinway Village wasn’t a ‘company town’, but an idyllic, thoroughly modern and pleasant place for his employees to live and work. In designing the Village, the Steinways sought to escape what they saw as an oppressive Manhattan. The move to their own town would eradicate “the machinations of the anarchists and the socialists.”
“It followed every tenet of good urban planning”, explains Singleton. “There was infrastructure – water works, sewage and streets, social and cultural amenities, parks, churches, schools including one of the first kindergartens in the country.” Walking around the neighbourhood surrounding the factory, many traces of their utopian village can still be found. Steinway Street runs through the district, where you can still see the rows of brick homes, designed as ‘country homes with city comforts’. The Steinway Reformed Church is still thriving today on 41st street, as are the schools and post office building.
“The one thing that most caught my attention was the Steinway Free library” continues Singleton. “It still exists today, and through various mergers is now the Queensboro Public Library. It has the largest circulation of any library system in this country. In its Steinway Branch is the portrait of Henry’s grandfather, founder William Steinway.” Typically, the library was started with books taken from William’s own bookcase.
One of the more remarkable and little-known chapters in the Steinway history is the building of their own transportation system. Originally built to take employees from their Victorian row houses to and from work, the Steinway Trolley Line proved so successful – well run and profitable, that other neighbourhoods in Queens asked the Steinways to build them their own trolley system.
Soon, much of Queens was connected together using the Steinway’s trolley lines. William Steinway also funded the building of a tunnel underneath the East River, that is still in use by the MTA subway today.
Next time you ride the 7 train into Manhattan from Queens, you are going through a tunnel built by the sale of pianos. There is also an abandoned subway loop built by the Steinways that runs underneath Grand Central Terminal. Known to only the most daring of urban explorers, the old Steinway Loop is one of New York’s buried treasures.
The Steinway’s also built their own pleasure beach and resort for their employees. Called North Beach it featured an amusement park lit by electric lights, including a ferris wheel, a German beer hall and swimming pool along a Boardwalk that rivaled Coney Island. The beach resort was sadly buried underneath La Guardia Airport and today nothing remains of the Steinway amusement park on the beach.
Whilst Steinway & Sons are proud of their traditions, they remain at the forefront of technological research. One of the more fascinating developments is the Spirio ‘player piano’ system, which captures every nuance of a performance to render the result utterly indistinguishable from the live performance.
It is really like the difference between and old black and white tube television with a “rabbit ears” antenna versus the latest high definition flatscreen televisions. One of the remarkable features of the Spirio is the library of Steinway Artists; using the Spirio its possible to hear someone like George Gershwin or Duke Ellington actually playing your piano.
Many of the workers at Steinway & Sons have been there for decades. Craftsmen such as Santé Auriti, worked his way up through the factory departments for nearly forty years to become the master Steinway case maker. Walking into his workshop is like stepping back in time to an era when the world’s finest furniture was carved by hand. Some of Auriti’s finest work is sculpting the elaborate legs for some of the most beautiful pianos in the Steinway catalogue – the Louis XV and the Chippendale Grand Pianos – all from one piece of wood.