IN: News & Features

Keyboard Spirits Revive


The founder
The founder

From 35 feet below the sidewalk of Boylston Street’s “Piano Row,” ghosts are beginning to stir in Boston’s most legendary, perhaps only remaining 19th-century theater (although we are certainly aware of the regrettably dark 1900 Colonial Theater next door and the 1870 Sanders Theater in Cambridge). We don’t mean the spirit of the elevator operator in one of the last cabs in Boston to require an attendant (automated in 2011); he after all was infamous for renting vacant artists’ studios by the hour for non-musical uses. Nor are we hearing the disembodied voice of Morris Steinert*, whose empire once stretched to 42 music stores and two piano factories; his autobiography humorously passed on his “wisdom” on selling pianos to “Hebrews” (among others), “show him one that is conspicuous by reason of its size and high polish, and then talk” [more here]. The spiritual chatter I am sensing emanates rather from a chorus of greats—the likes of Artur Rubinstein, the Kneisel Quartet, various Madams of the opera, and a distinguished roster of celebrity pianists—who played Steinert Hall from 1896 until its closing shortly after Louise Vosgerchian’s high school recital in 1942.

Jerome and Paul Murphy with founder (BMInt staff phjoto)
Jerome and Paul Murphy with Alexander Steinert  (BMInt staff photo)

For those 46 years the Pompeian red, classically detailed, elliptical auditorium seating 600 functioned something like London’s Wigmore. Toward the end of its run, though, it was being used primarily as a recital venue for the young patrons of the piano and voice studios in the floors above. The 1942 Coconut Grove fire, which killed 492 people, ended the Hall’s run—not so much because of fire code changes, as the hall had plenty of egress, but because, according to third-generation owners Jerome and Paul Murphy, the hall didn’t earn enough to pay the janitor to dust the seats or compensate for the anxiety of bringing 600 people down 35 feet without an elevator. The Murphys’ eyes did light up when they mentioned how Crosby, Stills, & Nash had sold out down the street recently at $250 per seat.

In the ’50s and ’60s, the piano showrooms fell one after another. Vose, Mason & Hamlin, Baldwin, and Chickering are no longer emblazoned on Boyslton Street edifices. Only Steinert/Steinway remains. During the long era when piano row was a blighted locus for such insalubrious establishments as Herbie’s Ramrod Room, the Hillbilly Ranch, and a Turkish bath, the dream of attracting chamber music devotees again seemed hopeless, much less investors. Then Emerson College relocated to the block and began to transform it. With the Combat Zone essentially gone, and many area theaters restored, an investor in a white hat finally appeared, to buy the nation’s oldest piano store.

“The six-story, 38,000 square foot building was purchased by B Minor, LLC for $14 million from the Murphy Real Estate Trust. B Minor, LLC is owned by William Mosakowski, founder and CEO of Public Consulting Group, Inc. Mr. Mosakowski first became acquainted with the Steinert Building in 1998, when he purchased a piano from M. Steinert & Sons. James Elcock of Colliers International and James Lyle of Posternak Blankstein & Lund in Boston advised the buyer in the acquisition,” the publicist tells us.

“This remarkable building is truly a window on a very important part of Boston’s history,” said Bill Mosakowski. “We are honored to continue the legacy of the Steinert Building, and to bring it back to the prominence it once enjoyed as the principal building on ‘Piano Row.’”

Steinert Hall in 1992 (BMInt staff photo)
Steinert Hall in 1992 (BMInt staff photo)

Restoring the subterranean Steinert Hall may have to wait a few years, but according to Paul Murphy, the principal investor is aware of the theatrical magic and is fully committed to a restoration. Boston really can use a chamber music space with superb acoustics and room for 400-500. The practice rooms and studios are likely to be casualties of the sale. Even the Elizabeth Phinney Vocal Studio, in its Steinert Hall digs since the 1920s, may have to go.

According to the brothers Murphy, the family’s 119 years selling instruments on Boylston Street will be interrupted for only one year. “We’ll be moving out, then we’re be moving back in.” They’ll be looking for an interim location for the construction period and a new permanent location for their Boston warehouse; throughout these developments, their store in the Natick Mall will await your custom.

* Morris Steinert was a cultivated Jew who, along with Mendelssohn, studied with Ignaz Moscheles.

Lee Eiseman is the publisher of the Intelligencer.


9 Comments [leave a civil comment (others will be removed) and please disclose relevant affiliations]

  1. If you cut off the bottom half of the photo and ignore the pipe at the top, you will see what a gorgeous space this is visually. I can’t wait to hear it. All the alcoves and columns mean great sound as well as sights.

    Comment by Jerry — May 24, 2015 at 7:35 am

  2. Excellent article, Lee. One is left somewhat speechless by the evidence of the Jewish Mr. Steinert’s anti-Semitic stereotyping of his “Hebrew” clients. Perhaps he would say and write such things in the hopes of being invited to dinner by the “best” people of the Back Bay….

    Comment by Joel Cohen — May 30, 2015 at 4:18 pm

  3. If you read the entire excerpt, it seems doubtful he was currying any favor with anyone. Lots of people, then and now, successful and other, rightly or wrongly and fairly or unfairly, from Steinert in 1900 to Charles Barkley last December, reserve barbed comments for their own affinity group. Sounding altogether of his non-PC time, Steinert goes above and beyond, with colorfully independent-minded generalizing about a range of customer types.

    Comment by David Moran — May 30, 2015 at 6:01 pm

  4. I’m not sure, David, how independent-minded those comments are. They are the standard ethnic clichés of their time, especially harsh towards Jews but in any case devoid of any particular insight.

    There is a taste of dust and ashes to these remarks. I’m guessing that Mr. Steinert was disappointed that he, instead of becoming another shining Mendelssohn in Leipzig, fêted by the European élite, ended up as a piano salesman in the distant, provincial New World. And so, he needed to assert his intellectual and cultural superiority over the customers he was obliged to serve….well, kind of a sad story, I intuit. Kudos to Lee for bringing this document to light.

    Comment by Joel Cohen — May 31, 2015 at 9:54 am

  5. Oh, many progressive Americans today have letters and such from grandparents and greatgrandparents saying quite the same sorts of things, except without liveliness or attempts at wit, and at least some of us have never found them remotely dusty or ashen, much less sad; more fascinating, and in this case approaching vaudeville. Your disappointment projection and interpretation may be spot on, or it may just be the times, and how things were. Steinert was rather more than a ‘piano salesman’, by the way, and the other parts of the ‘Reminiscences’ of this music-historical figure, which I first heard about almost a half-century ago at Brandeis, are also worth exploring.

    Comment by David Moran — May 31, 2015 at 2:40 pm

  6. I just returned to this thread, and I thought it might be helpful to respond with some historical information to the comment that “Mr. Steinert was disappointed” because he didn’t become “another shining Mendelssohn in Leipzig [but] ended up as a piano salesman in the distant, provincial New World.” Knowing this period quite well from my research while writing the biography of Ignaz Moscheles, I don’t think this is a valid assumption. On the contrary, many European musicians viewed the “New World” at this time as a wonderful opportunity to share their artistry with an enthusiastic public (and also make a lot of money). A prime example is the virtuoso Parisian pianist Henri Herz, who toured America between 1846-1850, and wrote a book about his experiences, translated into English as “My Travels in America.” Another was the virtuoso pianist Leopold de Meyer, who toured in the U.S. at around the same time as Herz. The most notable example, however, is Florenz Ziegfeld, Sr. He actually moved to America and went on to found the Chicago Musical College 1867. But it is his son Florenz, Jr. who became most successful in their adopted country, with his “Ziegfeld Follies.” Not incidentally, all were pupils of Moscheles and all were born Jewish, as was Moscheles himself.

    David Moran, moreover, is correct that Steinert was more than a “piano salesman.” Much more. As just one example, just take a look at the Steinert Collection of Musical Instruments presented to Yale University in 1900, and still a major part of the Yale Collection. And any Jew will instantly recognize the self-mocking tone of Steinert’s remarks about “Hebrew” customers. Just listen to today’s Jewish comedians to hear some contemporary examples. One of my favorites is Elayne Boosier’s line: “What do you expect? I come from a long line of short, dark, nervous people.”

    Comment by Mark Kroll — June 1, 2015 at 7:11 am

  7. Self-mockery is one thing, and it’s a long tradition in Jewish humour, both European and American.

    Steinert’s unfortunate remarks, however, reveal something darker than that: a strain of self-rejection or self-hatred. Perhaps this trait was to be found in other upwardly-mobile Jewish boys striving for acceptance in Brahman Boston; young Bernard Berenson, as I recall, also made anti-Semitic noises.

    How to Sell a Pianoforte

    Comment by Joel Cohen — June 1, 2015 at 9:49 am

  8. Why is everyone concerned only about humor directed at Jews? Where are the defenders of women, clergymen and Germans?

    Comment by denovo2 — June 1, 2015 at 10:00 am

  9. Of course denovo is right. All of Steinert’s contemptuous remarks about his clients are sad to read. That last paragraph is the worst, however.

    Comment by Joel Cohen — June 1, 2015 at 10:15 am

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