Established in 1982 at LaGuardia Community College/ CUNY with a mission to collect, preserve, and make available primary materials documenting the social and political history of New York City. We hold nearly 5,000 cubic feet of archival records and 3,200 reels of microfilm with almost 100,000 photographs and 2,000,000 documents available on our website.

Friday, April 15, 2016

Steinway Hall: A Place for the Piano in Music, Craft, Commerce and Technology

"There’s a separate world inside 109 West 57th Street, and it has nothing and everything to do with the world outside.  Everything because it’s a house of music, and music connects to all people…and all things….  And nothing, because – well, because it’s a world of pianos. The name of the place is Steinway Hall." – Kyle Kevorkian, “The House of Steinway,” 1992

Steinway Hall, W 57th St., c.1925
Earlier this week, Steinway & Sons opened a new Steinway Hall, the third in the history of the city.  But what is Steinway Hall?  Is it a concert venue?  A piano showroom?  An intimate home for artists and music lovers?  The corporate presence of Steinway and Sons in the cultural heart of America?

Steinway Hall, E.14th St., 1860s
Since 1866 when the first Steinway Hall opened on East 14th Street, Steinway Hall has stood uniquely as a nexus of music, craftsmanship, commerce, technology and the cultural life of New York City.

When William Steinway agreed to let the Women’s Suffrage Association use Steinway Hall in 1871 (the subject of last month’s Blog post for Women’s History Month), he not only rented his hall (the second largest in the city) for a major civic meeting, he also knew it was an opportunity to advertise pianos.

Wednesday, March 9, 2016

Women’s History Month: Steinway Hall and the Women’s Rights Movement

"There is no escaping the fact that the principle by which the male citizens of these United States assume to rule the female citizens is not that of self-government, but that of despotism; and so the fact is that poets have sung songs of freedom, and anthems of liberty have resounded for an empty shadow."

Victoria Woodhull spoke these words on November 20, 1871 at the original Steinway Hall on 14th Street in Manhattan.  The following year, again at Steinway Hall, Woodhull broke from the Woman Suffrage Association to advance a more radical women’s rights agenda.  The delegates from the convention who followed Woodhull from Steinway Hall to Apollo Hall the next day nominated her as the first woman candidate for President of the United States – in 1872!
Victoria Woodhull at Apollo Hall, 1872
Source: M.F. Darwin, One Moral Standard for All, New York: Caulon Press
Courtesy University of Michigan/Hathitrust

We hold in our Steinway Collection the letter that made the 1872 convention of the Woman Suffrage Association possible.  Women were, apparently, not to be trusted with business matters in the 19th century.  It was a legal issue – women, particularly married women, could not sign contracts.  So it took a man to secure rental of Steinway Hall for the convention.  On February 6, 1872, Reverend Henry Ward Beecher, one of the most famous and powerful men in America, wrote a letter to William Steinway, president of the Steinway and Sons piano company, which owned the hall in Manhattan that bore the family name.  Beecher promised to pay for the rental of the hall for the women, “should the Association fail to meet the expenses.”  Beecher was motivated by his sister Isabella Hooker, a supporter of Woodhull and active in the Woman Suffrage Association.  If you can’t read Rev. Beecher’s handwriting, we've transcribed it for you here.

Steinway Hall remained an important venue for the women’s rights movement through the late 19th and early 20th century.

As the repository of the Steinway Collection, we invite you to explore the papers, pictures and other materials of the Steinway family and their Steinway & Sons piano company.

To help you, we have prepared some wonderful webpages on The Women of Steinway and Sons, which offer a unique look into both women’s labor and craftsmanship at the Steinway factory, and the place of Steinway family women in the company’s business.

For more on the National Woman Suffrage Association, try here.

For more on Victoria Woodhull, try here and here.

Wednesday, February 17, 2016

Black History Month: The Story of John Louis Wilson, Jr. and the Harlem River Houses

Architect John L. Wilson, Jr. with Borough President 
David Dinkins, Chicago Mayor Harold Washington,
 and others at the 50th Anniversary of the Harlem River Houses
©New York City Housing Authority
"At the request of the Federal Government we are putting a negro architect on the Harlem-Macombs Place Project. His name [is] John Louis Wilson.”  Even setting aside the now offensive reference to an African American, this quote from a 1935 letter by Langdon Post (then head of the New York City Housing Authority) and the story behind it is shocking.  Or maybe it just should be.

The team initially selected to design project now known as the Harlem River Houses, did not include any African Americans, even though it was the first and premier public housing in Harlem, the heart of black culture in America.  The Harlem River Houses was intended to be a high profile and symbolic project: a statement of commitment to the black community in a time of segregated housing.  Even today, it is considered among the best designed housing ever built by government.

Architects Rendering of Harlem River Houses
©New York City Housing Authority
It took federal intervention for Wilson to be added to the team.  Some of the white architects, while denying personal racism, complained that Wilson’s appointment set a bad precedent because he had not participated in the initial qualifying competition.  And they decided that Wilson’s share of the profits would be 1/3 less than their own, justifying this with an unlikely estimate of the work remaining on the project as of Wilson’s appointment. 

The Housing Authority identified only two qualified black architects to fill the post.  John Louis Wilson, Jr. was unquestionably qualified.  He was the first black graduate of Columbia University’s prestigious School of Architecture, graduating in 1928 and fully licensed by 1930.  The other candidate was already working on another federal project, perhaps because it was so hard for black professionals to find work in the private sector. 

We have collected a great many resources for you to explore the history of John Louis Wilson, Jr. and the Harlem River Houses. 
  • Here is the in depth story of Mr. Wilson and the Harlem River Houses, including photos, documents and news clippings.
  • Here is the 1935 letter confirming Wilson’s appointment to the Harlem River Houses project, along with the responses by the original architects team.  We are proud to be the official repository of the New York City Housing Authority, from which these letters are selected.  The collection can be further explored here.  
  • Although not available online, we also have in our LaGuardia Collection an oral history interview with John L. Wilson himself, conducted by Professor Richard K. Lieberman (Director of the LaGuardia and Wagner Archives), and recorded during a class at LaGuardia Community College.