Fate uncertain for piano showroom

Monday, December 10th, 2012

It has long been the place where renowned pianists like Emanuel Ax, Alfred Brendel and Lang Lang would try out the nine-foot concert grands they would play up the block at Carnegie Hall or at Lincoln Center. And also pop stars like Harry Connick Jr., Billy Joel and Diana Krall.

The company might stay on as a renter.

But you did not have to be a world-class musician to walk in and run your hands over the products that carry the most famous name in the piano world. It was a showroom — a very ornate showroom — but it was as inviting as any auto dealer’s: Salespeople were standing by ready to chat up customers and talk deals.

Now the future of the Steinway & Sons showroom on West 57th Street, one of those spaces that give New York City a particular flavor, might be uncertain. The company has signed a tentative agreement to sell the 16-story, 87-year-old building.

“That place, it’s more than magical,” said Erica vanderLinde Feidner, who was a saleswoman at Steinway from 1992 through 2005 and now sells pianos on her own. “I remember when I was 10, auditioning at the Juilliard School of Music, and my father told me that we were going to go to the very famous Steinway Hall after my audition. I remember being captivated by the idea that pianos had a home such as that.”

Michael T. Sweeney, the chief executive of Steinway Musical Instruments, said in a conference call with financial analysts last month that the company was losing about $5 million a year on the building, whose Beaux-Arts facade and ornate rotunda inside were the work of Warren & Wetmore, the architectural firm most often remembered for Grand Central Terminal.

Mr. Sweeney, in the conference call, said he expected the sales contract to be finished by the end of November and the closing to take place by the end of the year. But Julie Theriault, a spokeswoman for Steinway Musical, said Friday that the contract had not yet been signed.

The $195 million deal contains a provision for Steinway to pack up the pianos and move out if the buyer — who has not been identified — or Steinway itself gave 12 months’ notice. “There’s a chance we’d stay and a chance we won’t,” Ms. Theriault said. “It’s potentially our decision, but it’s potentially the buyer’s.”

Steinway, which owns the building but not the land beneath it, said its share of the sale would total $56 million. But the company said $20 million would go into escrow for as long as it remained in the building. Mr. Sweeney, the chief executive, did not say how long that might be or how much rent Steinway would have to pay if it stayed on.

At one time or another, the building housed offices of the New York Philharmonic, Columbia Artists Management and Musical America magazine. In the 1990s, the nameplate above the large front window was replaced with one that said “The Economist” when the British magazine became a tenant. The Economist moved out in 2010.

For many New Yorkers, it was the showroom that was, and is, captivating. Dr. JoAnn Difede, a psychologist on the faculty of Weill Cornell Medical College, rented an upright piano there several years ago — a Boston, one of Steinway’s two lower-priced brands. Her son Hal Rives showed promise, she said. After six months of renting, they bought it. And last summer Hal, now 14, took a teenage friend who was visiting from Los Angeles to Steinway Hall.

“They went and played the pianos for an hour until someone threw them out,” she said. “It’s an icon. It may not be up there with the Apple store in touristy, but it gets some people there. And it’s a similar concept, the design of a perfect product and the place in which they’re selling it.

“That’s what Steve Jobs understood better than anybody in modern corporate America, and that Steinway got right. The environment in which it’s sold matters.”

But it is an environment on a block that is changing. There was a time when its stretch of West 57th Street “evoked comparison to the elegant Rue de la Paix in Paris,” in the words of the Landmarks Preservation Commission. But now a 1,004-foot-high tower is going up a few doors away from the Steinway building.

That new structure, known as One57, will be one of the city’s tallest. Its prices are high, too: Two duplexes are said to be under contract for more than $90 million apiece. And it was the scene of high drama during Hurricane Sandy when a construction crane snapped and dangled over the street.

The Steinway building, designated a city landmark in 2001, opened in October 1925 with a performance by 35 players from the New York Philharmonic. In the invitation-only audience, The New York Times reported, were “more persons of note in society and music, perhaps, than New York’s greatest concert halls often shelter in a day.” Among them were the composer Sergei Rachmaninoff; George Eastman, the founder of Eastman Kodak; the mining mogul and art collector Solomon R. Guggenheim; and John D. Rockefeller Jr.

Steinway says it loses $5 million a year on the building.

Over the years, generations of piano teachers scheduled recitals in the rotunda, with its 60-foot-high domed ceiling and elaborate marble columns, and generations of beginners labored through Beethoven’s “Für Elise” or Chopin’s “Minute” Waltz. And the basement, a workaday space with factory-style fluorescent lights, became a haunt for famous pianists with a recital or a concert on the calendar. There they could choose from among the instruments in Steinway’s concert fleet, a bank of pianos that could be delivered to concert halls or recording studios.

Rachmaninoff was introduced, so the story goes, to Vladimir Horowitz in the basement in the 1920s. After they worked their way through Rachmaninoff’s Concerto No. 3, Rachmaninoff is said to have declared, “That’s the way it should be played.”

Steinway occupied four floors and the basement when the building was new. But in the 1950s, the company moved most of its administrative operations to its factory in Astoria, Queens. In 1958, it became a tenant in its own building, which it sold to the Manhattan Life Insurance Company. Steinway bought back the building in 1999 for $62 million.

Virginia Gambale, a technology strategist from Greenwich, Conn., said she remembered when she first saw the Steinway building. It was in 1970. She was a 10-year-old pianist who arrived to play in a competition there.

She also remembered the first time her 8-year-old daughter, Olivia, saw the Steinway building. It was last spring, for a piano recital. “She knew the story of Mommy,” Ms. Gambale said. “I was so excited, and so was she. You couldn’t put this same experience in a different building. You stand there and you look at the columns. You look at the architecture. In a regular modern building, it would not have the same experience.”





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