Piano Row and its Hidden Secret: The Piano Industry in Boston

By Carl Licence

1_boylston_st

Figure i – Boylston Street (2017)

On your last trip down Boylston Street, across from the Common, did you notice this spot? This area, just south of Boston Common, is a historic area call the “Piano Row District.”  Except for one sign that contains a music note, there are not any real visual signs as to how this area received its name.  Could it be just another quirk of Bostonians using unusual naming conventions?  The names that residents have given areas of the city often defy logic and some say are perpetuated just to confuse tourists.  Could this Piano Row be similar to the “South End” which is located west of downtown? Or that the “North End” is in fact east of downtown Boston and west of East Boston? Or is it like Beach Street which is deep within Chinatown with no water in sight?  Many of these seemingly misnamed areas often have an amazing history or contain hidden historical artifacts that, with a little sleuthing, can reveal interesting facts and highlight the many changes that Boston has gone through in almost four hundred years, and this, the Piano Row District has seen its share of changes over time.

The Piano Row district was once on the shore of the Back Bay, when at the time, Boylston Street, then called Frog Lane, led to a colonial rope walk on its shore.  The area had been a remote location in colonial times and contained the 1756 Central Burial Ground. Eventually, as Boston grew, the area was developed in the first half of the nineteenth century.  This new development included housing, the new Boston Public Library built in 1858, before again relocating to its current location in Back Bay in 1895, and many theaters.

The entertainment business has historic roots around this area of Boston. This area, located from Washington Street to the west, included portions of Tremont Street, Boylston Street, and Charles Street South, and Piano Row along the Common in an area that became known as Boston’s Theatre District.  Consequently, the area included many people associated with the growing music and theatre industry.  One of this area’s most notable resident at the time was Edgar Allan Poe, whose parents were actors and both worked at the Boston Theater on Washington Street.  Poe’s boyhood home is just around the corner from the spot, shown above, and was located at 62 Carver Street.

As the new City of Boston continued to grow in the late nineteenth century, this area was re-developed to contain more retail oriented businesses and office space.  Much of this development replaced older homes and buildings but continued to have roots in the music and theatre trades.  Fueling this growth in the city was the influx of migrants from Europe.  Among these were highly skilled craftsmen and carpenters who aided the industrial revolution in Massachusetts.  The manufacturing of shoes, fabrics, and pianos were once the industry leaders in Boston’s economy.  The piano industry took advantage of these craftsmen and built a thriving business.

During the industrial revolution cities such as Boston, New York, and Chicago became focal points for the growing piano industry.  Many shops, large and small, opened to feed the growing demand for pianos.  The larger companies of this time were Steinway in New York, The Cable Company in Chicago, and Chickering and Sons in Boston.  In addition to these, many smaller and specialty manufactures opened businesses, such as M. Steinert and Sons in Boston.  During this time, the United States produced over half of the pianos in the world, and there were no less than ten piano manufactures located in the immediate Boston area.  Of these ten, only one company, Mason & Hamlin, continues to build pianos now located in Haverhill, Massachusetts.  This time was referred to as the golden age of the piano and ran from approximately 1870 until 1930.[i]

As the industrial revolution evolved in the United States it greatly enhanced the lifestyle of people in cities like Boston and provided more leisure time for the enjoyment of the arts.  During the piano’s golden age, the piano was the big-ticket item on almost every household budget prior to the mass production of the automobile which supplanted the piano as the big-ticket item on the household budget.  Homes of this time had to have a piano, and in the homes that didn’t own one, it was a highly desired item.  In fact, the piano proved to be a good investment and could often be re-sold for more than its purchase prices.  In an age before sound recordings and radio the piano took the place as the focal point of home entertainment.

The piano industry was fueled by the demand for not only home use, but in many institutions of the era.  As a more liberal-arts based education was taking hold in the United States every school had to have a piano for music instruction and student performances.  Public houses, pubs, clubs, churches, every social gathering location prioritized the ownership of a piano.  Related fields also grew because of the piano sales, sheet music publication, repair shops, and tuners all flourished.  In Boston, Oliver Ditson pioneered the printing and publication of sheet music in various locations along Washington and Tremont Streets.[1]

As the industrial age progressed into the “Gilded Age” vast wealth had been amassed by the industrialists of the time.  In Boston, this fueled a major movement in philanthropy and the sponsorship of the arts.  Many institutions that are enjoyed today have their founding or expansion during this era such as The Museum of Fine Arts, the Boston Symphony Orchestra, and The Boston Public Library.  From this new interest and support, the arts flourished in Boston including the enjoyment of the theatre.  One of the oldest continually operating theatres, The Boston Music Hall (now the Orpheum) was built in 1852 and was the original home of the Boston Symphony Orchestra.  Prior to this, the oldest theatre and meeting place in Boston was the Concert Hall, 1752 – 1869, located at Hanover and Queen Street, later renamed Court Street.[2]

Theatre building experienced rapid growth around the turn of the twentieth century.  The Boston Symphony Orchestra moved to a new home, Symphony Hall, on Huntington Avenue in 1900.  Along this same stretch of Huntington Avenue Symphony Hall was joined by Jordan Hall at the New England Conservatory of Music in 1903, Chickering Hall in 1901, The Boston Opera House in 1909, and the new location for the Museum of Fine Arts in 1909.  Back on Boylston Street, the Colonial theatre opened in 1900 in a new office building at the former location of the Boston Public Library.  Close by, at 162 Boylston Street a new office building and piano showroom opened for M. Steinert and Sons in 1896. At this time, M. Steinert was also designated as Boston’s authorized Steinway pianos.  This new building, 162 Boylston Street, and M. Steinert and Sons piano showroom proved to be the magnet that created Piano Row.

Piano Row received its name due to the high concentration of music-related business that moved into the area during the late 1800’s and early twentieth century.  A total of 29 buildings once made up the area that included the headquarters and showrooms of many of the leading piano makers of the day including various ancillary businesses.  Piano Row, across from Boston Common, contained not only the showrooms of Steinert and Steinway, but other large piano makers such as Vose, Starck, Mason & Hamlin, and Wurlitzer among others.  Also, located within the Piano Row area on Tremont Street, was the showroom of Chickering and Sons, Boston’s largest piano manufacturer. Piano Row became the focal point for the music industry for over forty years, from the 1890’s through the 1930’s.[3]

Many piano manufacturers often found it advantageous to fund small music venues to promote their instruments.  The Steinway Company was the leader of this approach with brought together live performances which usually drew concertgoers through the company’s showroom to reach the performance spaces.  Steinway Hall was opened in New York City in 1864.  As Steinway’s sales grew they moved and rebuilt Steinway Hall at various locations in New York where they continued to promote concerts and recitals.  Based on the success with this approach of cross-selling by Steinway, many of the large piano manufactures followed suit including the Aeolian Company and Boston’s Chickering and Sons.  As a result, Piano recital halls opened in major cities including Chicago, Baltimore, Philadelphia, and Boston.

Chickering and Sons led the piano industry as the largest manufacturer in the United States until Steinway surpassed them in sales in the late 1860’s. Chickering opened recital halls in most major cities.  In Boston, as Steinway had done in New York, the company continued to grow and update the concert halls at various locations throughout the city.  Chickering opened halls first at 334 Washington Street, then 246 Washington Street, 152 Tremont Street near West Street, and then in 1901 they moved to Huntington Avenue next to Horticultural Hall as many of the other cultural venues migrated to that area.  Chickering Hall existed at that location until 1963 when it was torn down in a new wave of renewal in that area.  However, back at 162 Boylston Street, at M. Steinert and Sons new office building and showroom, they had created a little secret space of their own.

  1. Steinert and Sons was founded by Morris Steinert who moved his piano business first from Georgia to New York, then New Haven, and finally to Boston in 1883 where he too opened the first Steinert Hall in the Boylston Hotel in 1889 at the corner of Tremont and Boylston Street then briefly from the first floor of the Masonic Temple across the street. Morris Steinert’s son, Alexander, who had worked at the piano store, commissioned a new office building, showroom, and concert hall in 1896. M. Steinert commissioned the architects Winslow and Wetherell to build the 6-story limestone and brick building that currently stands at 162 Boylston Street, which opened in December of 1896.

2_steinhertcrowd_LI

   Figure ii – Steinert Music Hall opens

During this era, the streets of Boston were still paved with cobbles and traversed by horses, carriages, and street cars.  This traffic created extensive street level noise and as a result Steinert requested that the architects in charge of building the new building construct the concert hall to be sound-proof to minimize this outside noise.  It was deemed that the best way to accomplish this was to place the concert hall 30 feet below street level, two floors down.  By placing the concert hall below ground it insulated the concert space and added to the halls near perfect acoustics.

3_Floorplan

       Figure iii – Floor plans and elevation

4_steinhert_seating

Figure iv – Circa1934 audience

Steinert Hall was decorated in the resurgent “Adams Style” that highlighted curved walls, incorporated domes, elaborate plaster work, and a mixed color scheme that included pea green, sky blue, lemon, lilac, bright pink, and red brown terracotta.[4]  Employing this style the hall was built in an elliptical shape, with wall panels containing the names of Schumann, Beethoven, Hayden, Bach, Mozart, and Schubert.  The hall contained 650 seats and boxes, and in 1915 a Greek themed mural was painted by Charles Aiken, an American artist who studied at Boston’s School of the Museum of Fine Arts.  By 1911 the hall was considered “the headquarters for music and the artistic world in Boston.”[5]  In The Book of Boston, it was reviewed as “one of the finest buildings in Boston devoted to music and musical entertainment.”[6] The halls near perfect acoustics has attracted many of the most famous musicians of the time.

BostonSundayJournal

As the country entered the Great Depression in 1930 compounded with people’s change in taste regarding the ownership of pianos, the piano industry in the United States entered a period of decline.  This decline was hastened by World War II when domestic production of pianos was put on hold to support the war effort.  Exacerbating the situation was the fact that people had changed their habits.  New priorities emerged and the big-ticket must-have, budget item that the piano once had was replaced by the desire for an automobile.  The home entertainment desire for music had been replaced by inexpensive recorded music and radio broadcasts.  As a result, the piano industry in the United States collapsed and manufacturing moved to Asia, first to Japan, then to Korea and China.

Steinert Hall received its final blow in the aftermath of the Cocoanut Grove fire in Boston on November 28. 1942.  Four hundred-ninety-two people died because of lax or non-existent fire codes in that disaster.  As a result, fire codes in the City of Boston were expanded and reinforced making the subterranean Steinert Hall ill-equipped to meet fire egress rules.  Steinert Hall was forced to close due to the high cost of meeting the new fire code at the end of 1942.

For the last seventy-five years Steinert Hall has remained closed and inaccessible to the public.  As its existence has faded from the minds of people and access has been shunned by M. Steinert and Sons, the hall has become a mystery.  Occasionally an article will appear on-line or in newspapers relaying the “discovery” of the subterranean hall.  However, the space has endured an unglamorous life since 1942.  The empty space has been used to store piano related items, boxes, file cabinets and other materials.  The six hundred-fifty seats have all been removed and donated to local schools, while the hall itself has suffered from water damage and non-existent upkeep.  In 2015, 162 Boylston Street was finally sold by M. Steinert and Sons to B Minor LLC.  The buildings new owners have professed publicly in the Boston Globe that they are committed to restoring not only the office building and piano showroom for M. Steinert, but also to rehabilitation of Steinert Hall to meet modern safety codes.[7]  The building is currently undergoing these renovations which are scheduled to take three years.  During this time, M. Steinert and Sons has moved across Park Square into new showroom space until renovations are complete.  On April 22, 2017 Steinert’s held an estate sale to unload some of the one hundred-twenty years of items they had accumulated, allowing renovations to move ahead.

This hidden and secret space is the latest in a renaissance of music halls and theaters in Boston.  With the recent renovation of The Modern Theatre and the Paramount, and the re-opening of the Opera House on Washington Street, there is a renewed interest in these often-forgotten performing spaces in Boston.  The latest is the announcement of a rehabilitation Steinert Hall’s neighbor, The Colonial Theatre.[8]

5_Steinert

   Figure v – 162 Boylston Street

6_Hall_today

Figure vi – Steinert Hall Interior

As M. Steinert and Sons and Steinert Hall created and drew other music related businesses to create Piano Row and is the lone survivor of the bygone era.  However, it is poised to continue the music related presence in Boston through the renewal of their facilities which has added to the cultural resurgence underway in Boston.

 

Further Information: Videos

Video interview Boston Globe:

Steinert Hall Interview Boston Globe

 

Video VIMEO:

Interview with the Owners

More on Steinert Hall

 

 

Bibliography

“Adam Style,” en.wikipedia.org, accessed April 14, 2017, https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Adam_style

Annear, Steve, “Silent For Decades, Underground Theatre Set To Be Revived”, The Boston Globe, May 22, 2015.

Bacon, Edwin M. The Book of Boston : Fifty Years’ Recollections of the New England Metropolis. Boston, Mass.: Book of Boston, 1916. 259.

“Boston’s Lost Landmarks: Steinert Hall On Boylston Street,” Boston.cbslocal.com, accessed 4/14/2017, http://boston.cbslocal.com/2016/01/29/bostons-lost-landmarks-steinert-hall-boylston-street/amp/

 

“Colonial Theatre,” cinematreasures.org, accessed April 10, 2017, http://cinematreasures.org/theaters/15774

 

Dig a little deeper and wonderful, strange things emerge from below,” proquest.com, accessed April 28, 2017, http://search.proquest.com.ezp-prod1.hul.harvard.edu/docview/1504621315

 

“Mises Daily Articles.” Mises Institute | Austrian Economics, Freedom, and Peace. December 10, 2008.

https://mises.org/library/end-us-piano-industry

Naylor, David, and Dillon, Joan. American Theaters : Performance Halls of the Nineteenth Century. Rev. 2nd ed. Atglen, PA: Schiffer Pub., 2006.

“Piano Row District – Boston, MA – U.S. National Register of Historical Places,” Waymarking.com, accessed May 1, 2017, http://www.waymarking.com/waymarks/WM79J2_Piano_Row_District__Boston_MA

Southworth, Susan., Southworth, Michael, and Boston Society of Architects. AIA Guide to Boston. 3rd ed. Guilford, Conn.: Globe Pequot, 2008. 49.

Spencer-Churchill, Henrietta Basic Georgian Style, Collins & Brown (1997), ISBN 1-85585-428-7

 

“Steinert Hall,” en.wikipedia.org, accessed April 14, 2017, https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Steinert_HallTompkins, Eugene., Kilby, Quincy, and Rogers Memorial Collection. The History of the Boston Theatre, 1854-1901. North American Theatre Online. Boston ; New York: Houghton Mifflin Company, 1908.

Figures

Fig. i. Licence, Carl, Boylston Street (2017), 2017.

Fig. ii. Steinert Music Hall Opens. December 13, 1896. Boston Sunday Journal. Accessed April, 2017. https://www.pinterest.com/steinwayboston/history-of-m-steinert-sons

Fig. iii. Sabine, W. (1900). Floor plans and elevation. ARCHITECTURAL ACOUSTICS.1–II. The American Architect and Building News (1876-1908), 68(1269), 19.

Fig. iv.  Circa 1934 audience. 1934. Accessed April, 2017. https://www.pinterest.com/steinwayboston/history-of-m-steinert-sons

Fig. v. Licence, Carl, 162 Boylston Street, 2017.

Fig. vi. Naylor, David, and Dillon, Joan. American Theaters : Performance Halls of the Nineteenth Century. Rev. 2nd ed. Atglen, PA: Schiffer Pub., 2006. 82.

 

End notes

[1] “Mises Daily Articles.” Mises Institute | Austrian Economics, Freedom, and Peace. December 10, 2008.

https://mises.org/library/end-us-piano-industry

[2] Tompkins, Eugene., Kilby, Quincy, and Rogers Memorial Collection. The History of the Boston Theatre, 1854-1901. North American Theatre Online. Boston ; New York: Houghton Mifflin Company, 1908.

 

[3] “Piano Row District – Boston, MA – U.S. National Register of Historical Places,” Waymarking.com, accessed May 1, 2017, http://www.waymarking.com/waymarks/WM79J2_Piano_Row_District__Boston_MA

 

[4] Spencer-Churchill, Henrietta Basic Georgian Style, Collins & Brown (1997), ISBN 1-85585-428-7

[5] Southworth, Susan., Southworth, Michael, and Boston Society of Architects. AIA Guide to Boston. 3rd ed. Guilford, Conn.: Globe Pequot, 2008. 49.

[6] Bacon, Edwin M. The Book of Boston : Fifty Years’ Recollections of the New England Metropolis. Boston, Mass.: Book of Boston, 1916. 259.

[7] Annear, Steve, “Silent For Decades, Underground Theatre Set To Be Revived”, The Boston Globe, May 22, 2015.

[8] “Colonial Theatre,” cinematreasures.org, accessed April 10, 2017, http://cinematreasures.org/theaters/15774

[i] List of piano builders in Boston includes: A.N. McPhail, Babcock, Chas. S. Norris, Chickering and Sons, Currier Pianos, Timothy Gilbert, Hailet, Davis and Company, Albert W. Ladd & Company, Mason and Hamlin, Steinert and Sons.