"The Wonderful World of William Steinway"

2006-1623William Steinway, 1882. Photograph by Carl Borntraeger, Wiesbaden, Germany. Courtesy of Henry Z. Steinway Archive.

Editor’s note: In December 2010, Anna Karvellas and her team launched the William Steinway Diary Web site, the first online edition of all 2,500 pages of Steinway’s diary written during one of the most dynamic periods in American history. The related exhibition, A Gateway to the 19th Century: The William Steinway Diary: 1861–1896, is on view in the museum’s Albert H. Small Documents Gallery through April 8, 2011.

“Dear Ms. Karvellas—Welcome to the wonderful world of William Steinway,” the letter began . . .

I was a few weeks into my position as Managing Editor of the William Steinway Diary Project, for which I had left my rent-stabilized apartment, something that any New Yorker knows signified the seriousness of my intent. 30-83 29th Street, third floor—where it began, when I moved to Astoria in 1997 and first began to think about its past.

“No matter how long you have been here, you are a New Yorker the first time you say, That used to be Munsey’s, or That used to be the Tic Toc Lounge,” Colson Whitehead wrote in The Colossus of New York (2003). “You are a New Yorker when what was there before is more real and solid than what is here now.”

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Map of Steinway & Sons holdings in Astoria (at that time part of Long Island City), circa 1874. From J. M. Kelsey’s History of Long Island City, N.Y., 1896. Courtesy of Henry Z. Steinway Archive.

Those who have spent time in New York will recognize the wisdom of Whitehead’s words, as I did, as I walked—literally walked—each block of Astoria, past St. George’s old stones, down 12th Street, along Welling Court, towards the Riker place. Astoria vibrated: in the dignity of the wood and granite houses that stood amid newer construction, in the robust wisteria climbing up the Steinway Mansion’s worn columns, in the competing whirlpools of still-treacherous Hell Gate as it moved towards the Long Island Sound. Astoria resonated, especially to me, to those listening for the pulse of William Steinway’s factory, his carefully graded streets, and his brick housing continuing to shelter lives new to this country. Its beat kept time so completely with my heart that it now feels inevitable that I would soon begin researching Astoria and William Steinway’s lasting imprint upon it.

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Astoria, NY. (Left) Steinway Mansion exterior, 2000. Photograph by Anna Karvellas. (Right) William Steinway and his family at the Steinway Mansion, 1881. Photographer unknown. Courtesy of Henry Z. Steinway Archive.

You realize the irony: You are leaving Astoria to write about it,” said my friend Christine, as I packed for the move. Sometimes, though, things feel meant to be, as I would later tell the author of the “World of William Steinway” letter: William’s grandson and Diary donor Henry Ziegler Steinway. He, too, had great affection for Astoria, as I quickly learned, and his vivid stories remain highlights of my 3½ years with the Diary Project. My question about Steinway & Sons’ relationship with the nearby Sohmer Piano firm, for example, produced an anecdote about regular commutes from Manhattan to Astoria with the elderly Sohmer. Besides learning just how narrow the Queensboro Bridge trolleys really were, the story provided a lasting image of the Steinway and Sohmer scions parting ways on the far side of the East River, each continuing on to his respective family piano factory.

It’s impossible to fully convey just how thrilling it was to experience Steinway Hall and the Steinway archives with Henry, to hear his straight-talk on things historic and otherwise, including how one mustered the courage to ride the Parachute Jump at the 1939 World’s Fair. His archives were remarkable (in the middle of the parachute story, he turned, leaned to pull open a metal file cabinet, and produced the ticket). On that trip alone, Dena Adams, Hugh Talman, Cynthia Adams Hoover, and I were able to scan more than 200 images, including rare family photographs, maps, and advertising materials such as the Illustrated Pamphlet on the Founding and Development of Steinway, N. Y. that conflated the development of the Steinway part of Astoria with the greater story of Steinway & Sons.

There are some people in life who leave you forever better for having encountered them, no matter how brief or long the time shared; people who enrich your outlook, metaphorically speak your language, and share with you an enthusiasm or mission. Henry Ziegler Steinway was such a person in my life—one of several who came to me through Astoria and the “Wonderful World of William Steinway.”

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Anna Karvellas and Henry Ziegler Steinway at Steinway Hall, 2008. Photograph by Hugh Talman.

I invite visitors to the Web site and exhibition to find their own reverberations in the Steinway story. Do you have a connection to the Astoria section of Queens or the Steinway & Sons piano factory? Which aspects of Astoria history most resonate with you?

Anna Karvellas is the Managing Editor of the William Steinway Diary Project at the National Museum of American History.

Posted at 10:57 am EST in From the Collections,Now on View