Enchanted Evening At The Mansion
Steinway Mansion Strikes Resonant Chord
It was a cool quiet moonlit evening as I made my way down the lonely street leading up to the Steinway Mansion. As I passed through the century old Italian wrought iron gates, I found white Japanese paper lanterns lit by candles leading into the yard. I followed them around the side of the house, and eventually right up to the front porch. But I couldn't go in, at least not yet.
The mansion looked so serene and quiet, even as over one hundred people enjoyed the cocktail party going on inside. The grey granite exterior soaked in the silvery moonlight, as the white trim glowed luminously. I stood there for a while, just breathing in each moment ... until someone came up behind me and said, "We really should buy this for ourselves." We then laughed, knowing that that would never happen.
But there was a yearning in my heart that the Steinway Mansion would be bought by some level of government, so that I, along with everyone else in Queens, could continue to enjoy this beautiful home, for the rest of our days. It dawned on me later, that perhaps I'd caught the Jack Halberian fever, and fallen in love with a 19th century Queens home and legacy that have no peers.
Click this link to view this report, along with quite a number of photos taken at the cocktail party dedicated to a Steinway Mansion open house / for sale.
An Enchanted Evening At The Mansion
Steinway Mansion Strikes Resonant Chord
As I walked in through the front door, Kim Parshley of Halvatzis Realty welcomed me into Michael Halberian's home. She was standing underneath the large chandelier, which was hanging from the cupola skylight built over one and a half centuries ago. I was told that at one time there was a representation of 'the eye of god' covering the opening.
To my left was one of the drawing rooms. Prior to the party Michael had lit a fire in one of the ornate white marble fireplaces that had been installed when the mansion was first built. I was amazed that the fireplaces still exhaled the air perfectly, while warming the room. It was also interesting to note that Michael, who as a boy had shoveled 30 tons of coal per winter into his father's furnace, was still using coal to help heat the mansion today.
People From All Walks Of Life Participate
At the Save The Steinway Mansion awareness gathering, there were people from all walks of Queens life. There were businesspersons, dancers, photographers, realtors, authors, historians, environmental activists, lawyers, academics, interior designers, financiers and government officials.
Everyone seemed excited to be here, knowing this was a rare chance to see something very special, before it became public or before it is ruined.
Art, History & Music At The Steinway Mansion
There was a violinist playing in the background [see photo to your left] and hors d'oeuvres being served throughout the night. I could easily see this sort of event being held as a regular feature here, if the Steinway Mansion were converted into a museum and cultural center.
Throughout the evening I overheard numerous conversations about the history of Queens and the Steinways, as well as about the Americana featured throughout the mansion, the art hanging on the walls, and the music associated with the legendary creme du la creme piano factory located only a few short blocks away.
Steinway & Sons Piano Factory Tours
The following day I phoned the piano factory to better understand who toured the piano factory. Loretta Russo, spokeswoman for Steinway & Sons Piano factory in Astoria, had once given me a tour and allowed me to take photos of the custom made piano factory in progress. She informed me that while some of thepeople who visit the factory come from foreign lands, the majority of them are from within the United States of America.
Steinway & Sons Piano factory hosts over a thousand visitors per year and many of them inquire as to the possibility of seeing the Steinway Mansion. By the way, tours are held on Tuesdays only from September through June, starting at 9.30 am and ending at 12 noon. No photos are allowed without prior permission.
The Steinway Mansion
Make It A National Museum & Cultural Center
To date the option of viewing the Steinway Mansion has been closed to visitors, as the Steinway Mansion has been privately owned since it was erected in 1858 [see photo to your right of the mansion at night]. It's also worth noting that as of mid October, Loretta of Steinway & Sons Pianos has already booked tours of the legendary factory through March 2011.
She added that the booking season for the 2010 - 2011 piano factory tours will soon be over because, as mentioned above, they only host the tours one day per week. The tours are free, but a donation is now being suggested to help support restoration of the Steinway diaries.
Steinway Mansion - Important NYC History
Meanwhile back at the mansion. I wandered into the study, where I found Michael Halberian. He was seated at a table surrounded by a number of guests who were intently listening to him tell them stories about the past [see photo to left]. He told stories of his and the mansion's past, as well as of the history of the Steinways, Queens and New York City.
While the mansion heyday was in the late 19th and early 20th centuries, Michael Halberian is also capable of bringing alive the struggle and the rapture of the Steinway Mansion in the days since. Several guests remarked that they wanted a year long pass to visit the 19th century study.
Peter Vallone - Save The Steinway Mansion
I had the opportunity to speak with Astoria representative to the NY City Council, Peter Vallone. Peter has been working to Save The Steinway Mansion by securing funding to have the city purchase the mansion and convert it into a museum and cultural center. He had recently spoken to the Historic Trust organization which indicated that most historic sites are managed at a deficit and that it would be beneficial to come up with an 'innovative use' for the mansion. Peter had also spoken to borough president Helen Marshall who stated she was interested in helping.
Peter Vallone is shown in the photo to your right discussing different ways to fund the acquisition of the Steinway Mansion.
Congressman Crowley Expresses Support
We found that there's a portion [$5 billion] of the American Recovery And Reinvestment Act funds allocated to preserving America's historic sites. We attended an event hosted by Congressman Joe Crowley who is Chairman of the Queens County Democratic party, and we took that opportunity to ask him about using federal funds to purchase the Steinway Mansion. He said he'd look into it and also suggested that funding may be available through 'Save America's Treasures' which is a public / private organization dedicated to saving America's cultural heritage. He also said he supported the Save The Steinway Mansion effort knowing it would be good for the Queens economy.
In the photo to your right is Congressman Joseph Crowley who we met just a couple of days prior to the Steinway Mansion event.
Carolyn Maloney & The Mayor - Waiting To Hear
As Peter noted that the Steinway Mansion is in Congresswoman Carolyn Maloney's district, we also called her office to find out what her position was regarding a public acquisition of the mMansion. We were also interested in inquiring what, if anything, she had done or was going to do to help preserve it. Her public relations person was out of the office until next week, so we'll update you when we hear back from him. We are also waiting for a response from Andrew Brent of the Mayor's office, regarding the Mayor's position on having the city acquire the Steinway Mansion.
Mayor Bloomberg is shown in the photo to your left at Taste Of The World 2008 in Queens while he was running for re-election.
Benjamin Pike's Tower
Meanwhile, back at the mansion. One guest had walked all the way up to Benjamin Pike's star gazing tower above the third floor. She noted that it was a beautiful moonlit evening and that she could see for miles around in all directions. She quipped, "Walking up those stairs would be a dangerous trip after a couple of drinks, especially in heels." In the photo to your right are the stairs leading to the Steinway Mansion tower above the third floor.
There were over one hundred guests in attendance, and the large 27 room mansion absorbed them all like a big sponge, with plenty of room to spare. Most of us congregated on the main floor and there was ample room to circulate, especially given the flowing layout of the home. Many people were drawn to the living room with the fireplace burning while others spent time in the dining room looking through the Americana and other objects of interest on display.
While I didn't get upstairs on this visit, I did spend a bit more time down in the basement. There's an Irish or English Pub as well as two large regulation length pool tables situated in the center of the stone walled rooms of the basement. There's also a jacuzzi and steam room. My understanding is that Michael Halberian, not Benjamin Pike, installed these.
The Steinway Mansion - Already A Living Museum
Toward the end of the evening I started to look at the prints and paintings on the mansion walls. The one shown in the photo to your right is of Astoria over one hundred years ago. The prints were distinctly American and primarily of the 19th and early 20th century, many of which were from or about the Queens / NYC / Long Island area. There are many etched glass windows on the ground floor which I have been told are original to the house.
As the crowd left, I watched Michael Halberian, coal glove on hand, start feeding coal into the fireplace [see photo to your left]. It came as no surprise that after more than seventy years mastering the fine art of coal burning, he had managed the fireplace feeding perfectly.
I bid adieu and headed out into the yard. The moon was still shining brightly, so I started shooting a few photos of the house. This time a couple of guests partook in the effort as they 'modeled the mansion' [see last photo in slide show].
Benjamin Pike Written Into Short Story In 1858
When I arrived home, a guest named Arthur had emailed me this clip from Fitz James O'Brien's short story entitled Diamond Lens which was written in 1858 [the year the mansion was completed]. It includes a paragraph about the Steinway Mansion's orginal owner: optician Benjamin Pike:
"My first step, of course, was to find suitable apartments. These I obtained, after a couple of days' search, in Fourth Avenue; a very pretty second floor, unfurnished, containing sitting-room, bedroom, and a smaller apartment which I intended to fit up as a laboratory."
"I furnished my lodgings simply, but rather elegantly, and then devoted all my energies to the adornment of the temple of my worship. I visited Pike, the celebrated optician, and passed in review his splendid collection of microscopes--Field's Compound, Hingham's, Spencer's, Nachet's Binocular (that founded on the principles of the stereoscope), and at length fixed upon that form known as Spencer's Trunnion Microscope, as combining the greatest number of improvements with an almost perfect freedom from tremor."
As I read the paragraphs above it seemed like voices were speaking to us from the past. At this particular moment it was 'Save The Benjamin Pike Mansion'.
The more I learn about the Steinway Mansion and the people who once inhabited it, the more I believe there is to learn about it. It seems the mansion is already a living museum, offering the possibility of providing a central home to literally tons of information and photos about 19th century Queens and New York. It would be a tragedy to let pass such an easy opportunity to preserve such an important part of Queens, NYC's and America's history.
Our next story will take you deeper into the Steinway Mansion in Astoria Queens legacy. The Steinway Mansion is, like a still pool, where the water runs very deep.
Help Save The Steinway Mansion
The government needs to make the Steinway Mansion a Museum & Cultural Center for Astoria, Queens, NYC and America. But over the past few months it has become very clear to me that purchase of the mansion by a public entity won't happen unless an overwhelming number of Queens & New York residents help. In the photo to your right are guests taking great interest in the many historical artifacts collected by Michael Halberan who is shown seated in the foreground to your right.
Mayor Bloomberg and the NYT haven't yet publicly acknowledged that two of Queens City Council Members have asked the city to purchase the mansion. I have personally contacted representatives from both offices, so I know they are both aware that an effort is being made to sell the mansion to the city. Yet both offices appear to have turned a deaf ear to the Steinway Mansion, its legacy and its potential to help Queens and its economy. The reasons for such notable inaction are unclear to me, particularly in light of the important roles played by the Steinways in 19th century NYC.
The asking price is $2.5 million for the mansion and immediate yard, or $4.5 million if one includes a wide swath of surrounding acreage. A very average Queens home, with no or a small yard, no or scant parking, far less than 27 large rooms, without high ceilings, without working marble fireplaces, without Smithsonian desired etched glass windows, without 150 year old skylights, without a sturdy well made granite exterior, and without any historical significance - can run for $500,000 to $1 million dollars in the Astoria neighborhood.
It seems that for a city with a budget of $63,000,000,000, the asking price is a rounding error. A rounding error which could be used to preserve a very important part of Queens, NYC's and America's history. And while doing so also help the economies of the surrounding Queens neighborhoods during difficult economic times.
Email Government Officials & Tell Them You Want To Make This Queens' Mansion
Let Peter Vallone's office know you support his efforts to Save The Steinway Mansion and copy Helen Marshall, Mayor Bloomberg, Congresswoman Maloney and Congressman Crowley using the folowing email addresses:
TBD - I'm waiting to receive public email addresses for you to use, but if I don't receive them soon, I'm going to give you the direct email addresses to the contacts I have. Bookmark this page and check back here within a few weeks after the election on November 2nd.
Send This Story To Family & Friends
In the meantime, enjoy the slide show. You may use the form below to send this story onto friends and family or copy and past the link above and blast email it after we have those email addresses posted. Perhaps your family and friends will be interested in helping too, as the Steinway legacy isn't just Queens or NYC's, it's also America's.
We will keep you abreast of Peter Vallone's efforts to Save The Steinway Mansion, and we will update you on the responses given by Mayor Bloomberg, Congresswoman Maloney and Congressman Crowley.
And, of course, we will continue to provide you with a Benjamin Pike approved eyeglass look into the past; as we uncover the remnants of those enterprising, hard-working, idealistic 19th and 20th century English, German and Turkish immigrants. People who helped shape the borough of Queens and the surrounding city where some nine million Americans live.
Click here to go directly into the photo album of the Steinway Mansion.
Click here to read the original Steinway Mansion story. Click here to visit a section where we dedicated a series of stories to the Steinway & Sons Piano Company founders, history, mansion, factory and Steinway Hall in Manhattan. Click here to read a report about the Steinway Piano Factory Tours in Astoria NYC.
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