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.

Every delegate at the meeting had to walk through Steinway & Sons’ main showroom, past rows of beautifully crafted pianos, to reach the concert hall where the meeting was being held.  With Steinway Hall’s full calendar of musical and civic events, thousands of New Yorkers walked past those pianos.  Many fantasized about taking one home.  Some would return to Steinway Hall to buy.  Even after Steinway replaced the big concert hall with smaller recital halls focused on piano music (first at East 14th Street, then at 57th Street, and now on Sixth Avenue), the audience has always walked through the sales floor on their way to hear the music – a subtle and brilliant linkage of piano craft, piano commerce, and musical heaven.

1877 Steinway Hall Concert via telephone from Philadelphia
Events at Steinway Hall also bridged the worlds of music and technology, again with the piano at the center.  On April 2, 1877, New Yorkers took their seats at Steinway Hall on East 14th Street to listen to pianist Frederick Boscovitz.  But Boscovitz was sitting on a piano bench in Philadelphia.  The New Yorkers were hearing his music via an experimental device called the telephone.  (Nevertheless, as you can see, an actual Steinway piano stood at the center of the stage).  One hundred years later, the audience at Steinway Hall on West 57th Street listened to Max Levinson play an actual Steinway piano onstage.  The performance was cybercast on “The Piano,” an early website devoted to classical music.  Continuing this historical tradition linking music and technology, the new Steinway Hall on Sixth Avenue is designed with a custom-made Steinway Lyngdorf sound system capable of state-of-the-art live streaming.

Through a century and a half, and three locations, Steinway Hall has bridged a separate and special world of pianos with the larger outside world of commerce and cultural life.

For more on the history of Steinway Hall, here are excerpts about the East 14th Street and West 57th Street halls from Steinway & Sons (Yale University Press, 1995), by Dr. Richard K. Lieberman, the Director of the LaGuardia and Wagner Archives.

The LaGuardia and Wagner Archives is the repository of the Steinway Collection.  You can explore our collection here.  We posted a few selected images from the collection on Facebook earlier in the week.  You can view them here.

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