Back when posh Park Avenue was an open canyon of railroad tracks an d rubble, and the buildings around it smoking factories, Steinway & Sons was making something grand -- pianos. Their factory was at Park Avenue between 52nd and 53 rd.
Today, STeinway & Sons is still turning out some of the most cherished of the World's musical instruments, a testimony to New York's golden age of manufacturing and craftsmanship in the middle and late 1800s.
The factory moved to Astoria, Queens, in the late 1910 But Steinway Hall on West 57th Street is perhaps the nation's foremost showcase for the piano and New York's craftsmanship.
The Indiana limestone and marble Steinway Hall is also the scene of the kind of elegant receptions that flourished like a peacock's feathers in the old days of society under the aegis of Ward McCallister, Mrs. William Astor, Caroline Astor, and other society luminaries, in the latter part of the last century.
Last month the hall, which is actually the showroom for Steinway pianos, pulled out all the stops for a party honoring the 50th anniversary of the public debut of Alicia De Larrocha.
Mrs. De Larrocha is the great Spanish pianist who has won almost as fanatical devotion from concertgoers throughout the world as the Steinway has from concert pianists, including Mrs. De Lararrocha.
For her golden anniversary season Mrs. De Larrocha played an unprecedented 12 times in New York City alone -- all on Steinway grands.
Although the company was acquired by the Columbia Broacasting System (CBS), Inc., in 1972, members of the Steinway family remain in executive positions. And while many famous pianists say Steinway consistently makes the best concert grands on the market today, some feel Steinway's workmanship is not up to what it was a decade or two ago. A controversy has developed in recent years over the use of Teflon bushings, instead of wool, in new Steinways. In fact, one world renowned pianist said privately he prefers playing on a 20-year-old Steinway he had "rebuilt."
Other artists prefer the Baldwin piano. One reason may be that Baldwin in many instances offers to ship its pianos from the warehouse or the showroom to the concert hall when an artist is playing, free of charge. Steinway usually charges for this service. Pianist Garrick Ohlosson prefers playing on a Bosendorfer Viennese concert grand.
Some of the grands used by Mrs. De Larrocha were picked from the plethora of pianos in Steinway Hall's basement. "We have between 75 and 100 pianos in the hall" at any one time, said John Steinway, one of the "Steinway sons."
John Steinways is, in his own words, "chief cook and bottle washer," of the family-run business. In that capacity, "I do a lot of sales promotion and adverstising but do a lot of other things."
One of these other things he doesn't do particularly well, he says, is play the piano. "Shoemakers' children," he laughs "don't wear shoes. I do play after a fashion, but I'm never going to put Mrs. De Larrocha out of business. We make them and let the great concert artists play them."
And Steinway has made quite a few. Since 1853, just seven years before the factory moved to 52nd Street and Park Avenue, there have been 460,000 Steinways sold. All are serially numbered with record kept of the original sales. Because of their high price -- ranging from $4,000 for an "upright piano" to $24 ,000 for a concert grand -- Steinway serves less than 5 percent of the total American piano market each year. About 250,000 new pianos are purchased annually in the United States. It takes a solid year ot make a Steinway grand, a few months, less for an upright.
"When you make a fine piano that is made a good deal by hand, the costs naturally are high," John Steinway said in an interview. "The finest materials are used. We're paying tremendous prices for Beautiful spruce. We get it mostly from the Norhtwest, from Washington, Oregon, and British Columbia."
The Astoria section of Queens not only contains the Steinway factory bu t a Steinway street and a Steinway mansion. "The mansion has been there since 1891 when my grandfather moved out to Astoria to move out into the woods, out into the country. It was all farmland at that time," he said.