William Steinway's New York
What was the Big Apple like in the second half of the 19th century? The daily diary of piano manufacturer William Steinway opens a window into a New York of concerts, politics, sports, theater, restaurants, and much more. Steinway’s diary resides in the National Museum of American History’s Archives Center as part of the Steinway & Sons Records and Family Papers, 1857–1919. The diary covers the period from April 20, 1861, through November 8, 1896, about three weeks before Steinway’s death.
“I wanna wake up in the city that doesn’t sleep…”
In the last half of the 1800s, long before Frank Sinatra sang those words, before the city had a subway, when there were no Yankees and Knicks, the singer’s words would still have resonated with many residents. Piano manufacturer William Steinway, who lived in upscale Gramercy Park in Lower Manhattan, was among them, and his daily diary opens a window into the New York he knew.
He saw great artists in a great concert hall, which he happened to own. He smelled the sea as he ate oysters at the famous Fulton Fish Market. He attended a ball—and mocked some of the ladies—at the old Madison Square Garden. A German immigrant, he attended plays at a German-themed theater. He went to a grand hotel to meet with the Democratic Party bosses. He left work one day to take in a baseball game at the Polo Grounds. He was a regular at the restaurant that was the “in” place for songwriters. Browse through the diary and you’ll find the New York that Steinway knew.
Steinway was a bit of a genius in building one of New York’s finest concert halls, which opened on East 14th Street in 1866. Concertgoers had to walk through Steinway & Sons piano showrooms to enter the hall, and the manufacturer demanded that artists appearing there could only press the keys of a Steinway piano. Steinway once caused the New York Philharmonic—then the resident orchestra—to cancel a performance when a guest wanted to play on a rival’s keyboard, according to Music and Culture in America, 1861–1918. Steinway Hall hosted 40 to 70 major concerts a year and other programs such as Charles Dickens’s reading before a capacity audience on December 9, 1867. The hall’s last event was in 1890, and Carnegie Hall opened the next year as the city’s top concert venue.
Fulton Fish Market
In March 2005, as the Fulton Fish Market got closer to its move from Manhattan to the Bronx, the New York Times wrote that it was “easy to become sentimental” in the market’s 184th year. “Arrive at daybreak, when the sky is turning pink beyond the Brooklyn Bridge, and you have found a forgotten city,” the article said, describing salesmen hoisting fish over their shoulders, workers pushing carts, and night laborers huddling around bonfires in cold weather. But the famous market also had a sordid history. A Time magazine report on organized crime in 2001 mentioned the mob influence on the fish market, and noted: “In 1988 the U.S. succeeded in placing a trustee at the fish market with a four-year mandate to battle racketeering. . . . In reality, little has changed.” William Steinway’s love of oysters took him to the Fulton Fish Market but, by 1927, New York’s oysters were exposed to too much pollution to eat. The Billion Oyster Project, launched in 2014, is working to restore one billion live oysters to New York Harbor by the year 2035.
The Thalia, previously the Bowery Theatre, was in the Bowery section of the Lower East Side, and lasted for 103 years under different names. It survived a succession of fires but burned down for good in 1929. Productions at the theater were geared to different ethnic groups, depending on the ownership, and at different times servedJewish, Italian, and Chinese audiences. German plays were performed there from 1879 through 1888, and Jewish actors gave performances in 1889 and 1890, according to King’s Handbook of New York City. Lyricist Yip Harburg (“Over the Rainbow,” “April in Paris,” “Brother, Can You Spare a Dime?”) once said, “On many a Saturday . . . my father packed me up and told my mother that we were going to shul to hear a magid. But somehow . . . we always arrived at the Thalia Theater.” (A shul is a synagogue, and a magid was an itinerant Jewish preacher, or story narrator.)
Hoffman House Hotel
Political power brokers from Tammany Hall, the city’s Democratic political machine, considered the hotel on Broadway between 24th and 25th Streets their headquarters. The major attraction, however, was not politics but rather William-Adolphe Bouguereau’s painting Nymphs and Satyr showing four nude women prancing around a faun. In The Epic of New York City, author Edward Robb Ellis recounts how, during the paralyzing blizzard of 1888, actor Maurice Barrymore—“his face flushed with brandy”—began reciting Shakespeare in the hotel’s bar. After a stockbroker tried to silence him, a free-for-all broke out. But Barrymore “kept his perch on the table, and ignored the shattering of glasses and the smashing of furniture, his eyes flaming and his magnificent voice booming, ‘A horse! A horse! My Kingdom for a horse!’” from Richard III. The hotel closed in 1915.
Madison Square Garden
Steinway went to the second of four Madison Square Gardens, built by a syndicate that included business titans J. P. Morgan, Andrew Carnegie, and W. W. Astor. Opened in 1890 at the site of the original, Madison Avenue and 26th Street, this Madison Square Garden was a Beaux Arts building designed by renowned architect Stanford White. Ironically, White was shot to death in the upstairs cabaret in 1906 by the husband of his previous lover. There were 5,000 seats with the floor area left open, and 9,000 with floor seats. The Madison Square Garden had a movable skylight that covered half the building, giving operators the option of bringing in fresh air. The building had a cafe, a concert hall, a roof garden, and events that included circuses, concerts, horse and dog shows, and bicycle tournaments. A tower offered great views of the city, with a statue at the top, of the Roman goddess Diana. She was unveiled in 1891, with “a grand illumination of red fire, colored lights, and rockets” revealing that Diana was nude, according to Gotham: A History of New York City to 1898. Moralists protested, “but J. P. Morgan liked it and it stayed.” The second Madison Square Garden was demolished in 1925
Steinway held a board meeting on this Saturday but then ditched any further work to attend a Giants-Reds doubleheader. His diary suggests he only saw one of the games. As noted in an earlier post about Steinway’s visit to the Polo Grounds, the Giants “lost the first game and won the second by the identical scores of 8-6. The attendance in the box score of the second game was 12,000. And the reporters who covered the doubleheader wrote of what then appeared to be a missed opportunity in the pennant race, since the 68–38 Giants were playing the 45–60 Reds.”
August Lüchow opened his famed German restaurant in 1882. Some reports said he received a $1,500 loan from William Steinway, but the diary doesn’t mention it. The restaurant was at East 14th Street, now the site of a New York University dorm. Steinway’s concert hall and showroom were across the street, and the piano manufacturer was a regular. In 1914 composer Victor Herbert and eight associates founded the organization that became the American Society of Composers, Authors, and Publishers in the restaurant, according to a plaque erected at the site in 1965. According to The Big Onion Guide to New York City: Ten Historic Tours, Luchow’s and nearby restaurants “became legendary hot spots where celebrities and performers mingled . . . while critics wrote their reviews at the dinner tables. The popular tune ‘Yes Sir, That’s My Baby’ is said to have been written one drunken night by Gus Kahn on a Luchow’s tablecloth.”
Larry Margasak is a retired Washington journalist and museum volunteer. He previously wrote articles on the 50th anniversary of the 1968 Fair Housing Law, Steinway’s seven-year struggle to plan New York’s subway, and Steinway’s vision of suburban America, which became a reality in the Astoria neighborhood of Queens, New York.