Skip to content

Sanctuary of the Immortals on 57th Street

Steinway Piano

Rachmaninoff Rehearsal Room Piano

With its serene neoclassic facade, Steinway Hall is a refuge from the increasingly discordant architecture on West 57th Street. Unobstructed by scaffolding, it is a functioning reminder that for more than half a century, the cross-town thoroughfare between Sixth and Seventh Avenues was the foremost musical center of the country.

The building at 109-111 West 57th Street received Landmark status in 2001. To walk through its portals, which are sheltered from the street by cove-shaped lobbies, is to step back in time. Except for a few computer screens on top of mahogany desks, the structure looks much as it did when Warren & Wetmore designed the building for the Steinway family in 1925.

Steinway & Sons 1925

Steinway & Sons 1925 Photo

The architects, whose best-known work is Grand Central Terminal, clearly planned Steinway Hall for iconic status. A music themed sculpture of Apollo and the muse of music by Leo Lentelli topped the entrance, which was framed with Ionic columns. A frieze with medallion portraits of classical composers and pianists enhanced the design. Above the sculpture, the name STEINWAY was neatly carved into the Indiana limestone façade, evoking pride and permanence.

The design is restrained, yet exuberant. This was, after all, the Twenties. The 12-story elevation culminates in a four-story setback colonnaded tower. Above that, a second, campanile-style tower was constructed with a steep roof in the shape of a pyramid. Adorned with a large lantern, this whimsical ionic temple was the product of the Jazz Age when unusual rooflines bearing clocks and beacons distinguished Manhattan’s skyline. It was designed to be part of a penthouse apartment for the president of Steinway, but was turned into a radio studio

Steinway Rotunda

The Rotunda Showroom

However, the breathtaking two-story rotunda is the real dramatic centerpiece of Steinway Hall. The spectacular 35-foot domed ceiling was hand painted by Paul Arndt, with allegorical scenes of lions, elephants, goddesses and nymphs depicting the influence of music on human relations. The walls are adorned with fluted white Italian marble columns alternating with green pilasters of highly polished Greek marble. Descending from the ceiling is a magnificent, glittering 19th century Viennese crystal chandelier. An ebony concert grand piano sits in the center of the enormous carpeted room furnished with English pieces. It is surrounded by the desks of the Steinway employees who go quietly about their business.

Specially commissioned oil portraits by esteemed American artists depict composers, such as Berlioz, Chopin, Handel, Mozart and Wagner, and legendary pianists, such as Liszt, Paderewski, Rachmaninoff and Rubinstein. Paderewski, who was also the first prime minister of Poland, performed at Carnegie Hall during its first season in 1891. No stranger to the neighborhood, he resided in the Buckingham Hotel, steps away from Steinway Hall.

Showroom Window

Old World Elegance

It is almost surprising to remember that this is a retail establishment. The firm was selling an image of refinement that seldom seen today. A 1929 advertisement links the Steinway name with the phrase “The Instrument of the Immortals.”

In the back of the rotunda, a carpeted, deep green corridor leads to paneled showrooms with French doors and intricate parquet floors. On the walls, surrounding various pianos for sale are numerous oil portraits of Steinway family members dating back five generation.

The room that held my interest contains the Heirloom Collection of vintage Steinways. Among the offerings is a 1925 mahogany baby grand reduced from $88,000 to $59,900 and an exquisite ebonized instrument from 1907 for $72,000. I admit that my pulse quickened at the thought of owning and playing one of these splendid, historic pianos.

Heirloom Steinway

1925 Heirloom Steinway

The paneled elevator opens on the mezzanine level, where the landing is furnished with a Gatsby-era white baby grand. The view of the showroom from the balcony is worth a visit. The mezzanine features new soundproofed rehearsal rooms, named after members of the Steinway family. Each one contains a new, impeccably maintained Steinway piano that is equipped with a PNOscan MIDI record strip for connection to personal computers. The only room not named for a Steinway is the Rachmaninoff room, which contains a large portrait of the virtuoso.

There are two larger receptions rooms on the mezzanine. When I visited, one was in use for a meeting. A second room looked large enough to function as a recital hall. It contained three baby grand pianos. The walls were covered with large photographs of musicians who most likely performed there. During its heyday, concerts were given in Steinway Hall on the third floor. Until it was closed after World War II, Steinway Hall, which sat 240 people, was a major venue for classical music performances.

It was there, on October 27, 1925, that the new 16-story building was dedicated with its first recital, which was simulcast on radio. Members of what would become the Philharmonic Orchestra, Scottish baritone Fraser Gange and pianist Josef Hoffman performed, while the audience contained four Steinway grandsons, Sergei Rachmaninoff, Mrs. Andrew Carnegie, and prominent names including S. R. Guggenheim, DuPont, Drexel and George Eastman. According to The New York Times, invitations were sent to President Coolidge and Governor of New York Alfred E. Smith.

Concert & Artists Dept.

Vintage Sign on Mezzanine

A vintage glass sign on the mezzanine points to the Concert and Artist Department. Here, professionals still arrange to visit the renowned “piano bank” in the basement, where they select instruments for use in concerts, in recordings, and on tour. According to legend, it was in the Steinway basement that Vladimir Horowitz and Sergei Rachmaninoff met for the first time. No ghosts were present during my visit to the basement, but there were many pianos being prepared for shipment. The loading dock opens on to the 58th Street service entrance of the building. I did exchange a few words with a young piano tuner who confided, “This is where the magic happens.”

The building now bears the name of the current owner, the British publisher, The Economist. The property has had other landlords over the years. It was bought by the Manhattan Life Insurance Company in 1958 and sold to CBS in 1972. In 1985, Columbia Broadcasting sold the entire Musical Instruments Division, which included Steinway & Sons, to a holding company trading under the name Steinway Musical Properties. Ten years later the company merged with the Selmer Company, USA, which then took the company public. The Steinway share is quoted on Wall Street under the abbreviation LVB (Ludwig van Beethoven).

Today, Steinway & Sons owns a 99-year land lease on the property. Among the new tenants is the Municipal Art Society, which leased the sixteenth floor in 2009. It is a fitting home for the organization, which helped create the City Planning Commission and the Landmarks Preservation Commission.

Steinway Hall Exterior

Neoclassic Facade

With its strategic location down the street from Carnegie Hall, the building has served as an elegant retail showroom for Steinway & Sons pianos for 85 years. It is the firm’s sole sales location in New York City. This is all the more impressive, considering that the Steinway’s presence in the building has been drastically cut back. Like a dowager in reduced circumstances, Steinway & Sons occupies only the ground floor, mezzanine and basement. In the rear of the mezzanine, Dowling Music now has a shop that sells sheet music, CD’s and gifts.

The 111 West 57th Street entrance has its own lobby and tenants. On the top of the building in what may have been the original radio broadcast station, is the Nola Recording Studio, an intimate music production venue. Despite having its “name on the door”, The Economist is nowhere on the premises. Its offices are at 750 Third Avenue.

While the world around it has changed, the Steinway prestige endures. The firm continues to play an important part in the New York music world, as it has from the time the Civil War ended. The first Steinway Hall on 14th Street, with a main auditorium of 2,000 seats, housed the New York Philharmonic until Carnegie Hall opened in 1891. The new uptown auditorium quickly became the axis of the classical music and art world, paving the way for firms like Steinway & Sons to build grand showrooms on 57th Street.

“Today, the building continues to be a requisite stop for anyone interested in playing the piano, including the world’s greatest pianists,” says Ron Losby, President of Steinway & Sons—Americas. It is also an icon for those of us who are fascinated by the visionary architecture of New York’s City’s past.

 

3 Comments

  1. barryblogs wrote:

    Wow! Thanks for continuing to examine–in such wonderful detail–these New York treasures. I’ve walked by this building so often. Knowing how grand it is, and so much of its history, is really terrific.

    Friday, May 6, 2011 at 1:05 pm | Permalink
  2. Todd Alexander wrote:

    I have always been interested in the Steinway building, thanks for the tour, it added a warmth to the history of that beautiful and grand building.

    Monday, May 9, 2011 at 8:32 pm | Permalink
  3. Richard Martino wrote:

    Can’t wait to make a visit… with headphones and LVB for company! Thanks.

    Tuesday, May 10, 2011 at 3:25 pm | Permalink

Post a Comment

Your email is never published nor shared. Required fields are marked *
*
*