Queenswalk: Astoria’s Sohmer Piano Factory

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    It’s hard to believe, but in 1872 there were 171 piano manufacturers in New York City alone. The piano had gone from conversational furniture piece for the rich, to a necessary component of the refined middle class home. New York’s piano manufacturers were turning out all kinds of instruments; from cheap “thump boxes” to fine musical instruments suitable for the finest concert hall. The latter half of the 19th century saw pianos and other musical instruments become one of New York’s top manufactured products. Astoria is famous for the Steinway Piano Company, but that neighborhood was home to other piano makers as well. Although not a household name today, except to musicians, the best of the other companies was Sohmer & Company, Piano Makers. Like Steinway, they too made the move from Manhattan to a large factory on the shore of the East River, in Astoria, Queens.

    Sohmer & Co. was founded by German piano maker Hugo Sohmer, who lived from 1845 to 1931. He immigrated to New York in the 1860s, and apprenticed with several other piano makers before setting up his own company in 1873. While the Steinway Company was establishing itself as a maker of fine grand and baby grand pianos, Sohmer decided to specialize in upright pianos, or “verticals,” which took up much less room and were more popular in the average home. Like Steinway, he made excellent quality instruments. Sohmer pianos were one of the finest pianos made in the United States.

    Pianos were not only a source of entertainment for a population that lived before radio or motion pictures, they were a symbol of refinement and taste; and by extension, and so were its players. It’s rather ironic that while 95% of the composers in the 19th century were men, women and girls were the pianists in the home. The ability to play the piano was seen as a mark of culture. It was expected that most upwardly mobile girls could sit down and play a few simple tunes. If they couldn’t play the classical repertoire, then hymns and sentimental popular songs were certainly acceptable. Every gathering and soiree included some poor soul being made to play a few tunes, often accompanying the inevitable sing-along.

    But the piano was not just entertainment, and a girl’s abilities were not just social, they were also seen as moral and spiritual. Other instruments available in the 19th century were nice, but not as suitable as the piano. Playing the harp might give one bad posture. Playing the violin or the horn was not very feminine, and God forbid, a girl should play the cello, for obvious reasons. But the piano was seen as a stabilizing factor in an increasingly immoral, highly mechanized and uncertain world. A girl or woman playing the piano in the home was a balm of spiritual medicine in the home, a calming healing force, and music was a necessary and valuable commodity to the modern home, and in the lives of proper females. People were willing to pay good money for that.

    So the market for an excellent upright piano was certainly there, and Sohmer & Company rose to the occasion to supply that need. Hugo Sohmer’s original 1873 factory was in Manhattan, on 14th Street, in the heart of Manhattan’s “Little Germany” at the time. He was able to produce four pianos a week. By 1879, he had expanded out of his building, and taken over two more buildings on 14th, near Irving Place, where the Con Edison Headquarters is today.

    A few years after that, he moved the entire operation uptown to 23rd Street, and by 1880s, he was producing 46 pianos a week, and was one of the city’s largest piano companies. By 1886, he had outgrown that facility, and like William Steinway, he looked across the river to the wilds of Astoria, and bought a large plot of waterfront land near the Astoria ferry for his new factory. The factory would be a large six story building with a prominent clock tower, visible for miles on both sides of the river.

    The factory was designed by the firm of Berger & Baylies, Architects, in 1886. They were a Manhattan firm which specialized in factories and commercial buildings. Bruno W. Berger and Franklin Baylies were the architects for many loft buildings, factories and warehouses now in the Tribeca and Soho Historic Districts. Most of their buildings were designed in the Neo-Grec style of architecture, popular in the mid to late 1870s. The Sohmer factory was their largest and most prominent buildings, and one of the few they designed in a German Romanesque Rundbogenstil style.

    Rundbogenstil, or “round arch” architecture, was a popular style of architecture for factories, breweries and churches in the New York City area. Many German-American architects of the period were very familiar with its use. Brooklyn abounds with Rundbogenstil style buildings, especially in Bushwick, Williamsburg, and other factory districts. The style is characterized by blind arches, crenellation, corbels and other decorative detail in the same brick or stone as the body of the building. These elements add a bit of style to what are generally functional, industrial and otherwise basic buildings.

    Franklin Baylies is credited with the actual design of the building. He went a step further, and put a great addition to the factory, one that really puts it on the map – the clock tower. All good factory buildings were built not just as places to manufacture a company’s product, but as advertisement for that company. The façade that one put out there on the street represented the company in the public mind, perhaps even more so than their products, especially if you saw it every day. That’s why most factories, when they could, but all the messy stuff in the back where you couldn’t see it. From the street, a successful company was neat, clean and radiated industry and progress.

    Clock towers were part of that psychological advertising. As 19th century society grew more organized and busy, most people looked to clock towers to help them organize their day. It was now important to be on time, keep appointments, and just keep track of one’s time in a busy, mechanized world. People were taking their first forays into the world of the time oriented rat race. For those who couldn’t afford a watch, a public timepiece was even more important. Clocks like the ones on the Sohmer tower, were like the whistles marking the shifts at a factory; a part of the new ordering of life.

    They also established the brand. Even if you didn’t own a Sohmer piano, you thought of the company whenever you looked at the clock. It was a point of company pride to keep the clocks accurate, as everyone looked to the company as the keeper of time. Since the clock could even be seen in Manhattan, this was amazing advertising. Aside from that, the tower served a very practical function; it hid the water tank, necessary for fires, and other pieces of equipment.

    Although Sohmer never was a household name, like Steinway, they were quite successful, and had their famous fans. Composer Victor Herbert owned several Sohmers, as did songwriter Irving Berlin. Later in the 20th century they made custom Art Deco and Spanish style pianos for stars like Ramon Navarro, Al Jolson, and Jean Harlow. Every piano that left the Queens factory was inspected by a member of the Sohmer family, and stamped with a seal of approval. In 1906-1907, the company expanded one last time, adding a six story extension to the factory, which was designed by Franklin Baylies thirty–some years after his original design. He matched it to the old building seamlessly.

    New York City’s piano companies shrank in numbers after the height of the industry at the turn of the century. Many of the companies consolidated, squeezing out the smaller companies. Mass production techniques made pianos cheaper in both price and quality. The invention of the record player put a dent in New York City’s piano industry, but radio killed it. Between 1923 and 1933, the number of piano manufacturers in the entire United States shrank from 160 to 36. Piano manufacturing moved out of Manhattan to the Bronx, and by the Great Depression, only Steinway and Sohmer were still active in Queens.

    Sohmer survived the Depression, although they ended up renting out a great deal of their factory space to other industries. They remained in Astoria until 1982, when the company was sold to Pratt, Read & Company, the leading manufacturer of piano keyboards, which moved the manufacturing to its plant in Connecticut. Today, Sohmer pianos are still being made, but now they are manufactured in Korea by the SMC Company, the largest piano makers in the world, which also manufacture Bechstein, William Knabe, Conover Cable, and Hazelton pianos.

    Pratt, Read & Co. sold this building to the New York City Industrial Development Agency, which leased it to the Adirondack Chair Company, a furniture leasing and mail-order company. The state agency also lent Adirondack $1.2 million to fix the place up, all as an enticement to get them to stay in NYC. Adirondack painted their company name and advertising on the sides of the building, and hunkered down. The deal with the state would turn the lease over to them in 1992, after they paid back their loan.

    The Landmarks Preservation Commission wanted to landmark this iconic building several times, and tried in 1983, 1984 and 1990. Each time Adirondack fought the designation, threatening to leave the city if the building was landmarked. In their 1990 attempt to fight designation, they hired two architectural historians to downplay the building’s eligibility. William Shopsin called the factory “garden variety design that nobody would give a second glance to.” Martha Bowers said that it was not obvious that it had been a piano factory, and the building did not have a specific style.

    Meanwhile, Community Board 1 did not want the building landmarked because they wanted the building torn down and redeveloped in the style of the Shore Towers Condominium, only blocks away. Queens had a reputation of opposing landmarking, anyway, and if the designation was vetoed by the Borough President, the LPC generally went along with it. In 2005, another hearing was called, with preservationist organizations backing its designation, Adirondack and all of Queens’ political representatives in that district opposing it, including the Borough President, Councilman and City Council President Peter Vallone, and their state senator. CB1 still thought “there was nothing special about it.”

    Vallone later sent a letter withdrawing his opposition. The Sohmer Piano Factory was officially landmarked in 2007, after a unanimous vote from the City Council. By that time, Adirondack sold the building to developer Angelo Aquisto, who turned the building into residential housing. Vardo Construction was the contractor, and Gerald Caliendo, who worked on several important Astoria projects during that same period of time, was the architect. Today, the Piano Factory Apartments is one of Astoria’s most sought after residences. The clock tower was fixed, and its clocks still keeps perfect time for busy and harried New Yorkers. The building is located at 31-01 Vernon Blvd. It’s beyond me how anyone could think this is not a special building; it’s dripping with history, a perfect candidate for residential re-use, and an iconic part of the special landscape of Queens. GMAP

    (Sources: LPC designation report for the Sohmer Piano Company Building, C.Gray’s Streeetscape column in the NY Times. Photo: Wiredny.)

    19th century drawing: qchron.com.

    19th century drawing: qchron.com.

    Undated postcard: sawkill.com

    Undated postcard: sawkill.com

    Photo: Curbed.com

    Photo: Curbed.com

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