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.
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.’”
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.