A Brief History of Steinway Hall
Steinway Hall in New York City is the first Steinway Hall. Others were later opened in several other cities here and abroad. The Steinway & Sons Piano Company’s first showroom/recital hall in New York opened its doors in 1866. The location was in downtown Manhattan on East 14th Street, between University Place and 5th Avenue.
Lit by over 700 gaslights, Steinway Hall quickly became a center of New York’s cultural life of the time. There was room to showcase 100 Steinway & Sons pianos. The founder of Steinway Hall William Steinway, son of Steinway & Sons founder Henry Steinway, realized it would be good for sales if well known piano artists would have a place to play on Steinway & Sons pianos for recitals at Steinway Hall. William helped design Steinway Hall with enough room for 2,000 people and had a concert stage big enough for a 100-piece orchestra. This first Steinway Hall in New York was the home of the New York Philharmonic Orchestra for 25 years. Steinway & Sons also began at to organize concert tours for well-known pianists as a way promote the Steinway & Sons piano. In 1872 Steinway & Sons organized a tour of 215 performances in 239 days for the great Russian pianist Anton Rubinstein. The first performance of the tour was a sold out standing room only concert at Steinway Hall.
Steinway Hall’s location in Manhattan stayed the same until the new Steinway Hall was opened January 11th, 1925 on 57th Street, between 6th and 7th Avenues. The first location was closed the same year. The architectural firm Warren and Wetmore designed the building in the beaux arts tradition.
The new location was picked because of its proximity to Carnegie Hall, which is located across the street. Steinway pianos were played at both the new Steinway Hall and Carnegie Hall. The new Steinway Hall also introduced its own recording studio and technical equipment to broadcast classical music over the radio. Steinway Hall was designated a registered historic and cultural landmark in 2001.
In the spring of 2000, I came to New York City to work at Steinway Hall as a retail technician. I was 26 and had recently graduated a piano technology program at a school in Boston.
At that time the retail technicians at Steinway Hall, there were about six of us, were all members of the same AFL-CIO affiliated union as the workers in the Steinway factory. When new pianos came to Steinway Hall from the factory in Queens, they are still adjusting and settling. The piano must be tuned and adjusted often in the first year to stretch the strings and get the piano to stabilize at the standard A440 pitch. When in tune, the piano holds between 18-20 tons of tension.
In addition to maintaining the pianos for sale, pianos that have been selected and are going to be delivered to the customer’s home must be gone over completely and tuned again before delivery.
An average day back then at Steinway Hall started at 7:30am, punching in for the day in the famed basement of Steinway Hall. The basement is where the technicians and polishers have workspaces. There is a technician’s work/break room. After arriving we would head upstairs to tune in the different rooms where the pianos were displayed. Some of us would continue to tune pianos all day; some would work on adjustments to the pianos actions on workbenches. When a customer or sales person had a special request, which was not uncommon, the technician must address that as well. We had a 30-minute lunch break. In summer it was nice to take a bag lunch and sit in Central Park, which is only a couple blocks from Steinway Hall. The workday usually ended at 3:30pm.
Sometimes the retail technicians would be asked to tune at outside locations, usually for restaurants, hotels, and music venues that had contracts for service with Steinway. The large music venues like Carnegie Hall and Lincoln Center are maintained by Steinway’s Concert & Artist Department. The Concert & Artist technicians also have a section of the basement area at Steinway Hall to prepare the pianos for selections by the artists. After the pianos are prepared, the artists will come in and play for a while on one or more pianos that the concert technicians have prepared especially for them. After the artist has selected the piano they will use, that piano is then further refined to the artist’s specifications, and then delivered to the venue for the concert.
Steinway hall was a great place to work then. We were encouraged to do our best and were never rushed to complete a job. More experienced tuners were very generous with their time passing on many of the “tricks of the trade” as we worked together during the day.
It was fun to see the celebrities come in sometimes. When a concert artist came to select a piano, they sometimes could play for a hour or more. If you were working nearby where they were playing, it was like a free concert.
Steinway Hall is full of history both concrete and not. In the rooms and hallways hang dozens of original paintings, awards, artist portraits, Steinway family portraits, piano parts, and a lot of pianos. What is does the future hold for Steinway Hall? Today, besides the Manhattan location there are 11 other Steinway Halls across America. In addition there are Steinway Halls in Germany, London, and Vienna. The newest Steinway Halls are located in the Far East cities of Seoul, Shanghai, Beijing, and Tokyo.
Today I am currently working for Steinway as a independent contractor maintaining pianos at Steinway Hall.