History lovers and landmark preservationists are distraught over how they cannot save the beloved Steinway Mansion from being hemmed in by warehouses. While the mansion itself is protected, the land surrounding it is not and has been experiencing construction — or destruction, depending on how you perceive the situation — since early spring.
Various groups have reached out to political leaders, but no progress has been made toward putting a stop to the development, which is fully legal. A quick glance from the street view of the historical home seems to reveal more mess than a mansion at the moment. What historians, some Queens residents and landmark preservation groups feel is the real roadblock to protecting the 1858 home is that political leaders have not taken a stand for it.
A seemingly endless amount of dirt and debris covers the hill the mansion sits upon, surrounded by green fencing. Signs on the fence say that the “work in progress” is anticipated to be completed in summer 2016 with a photo of the planned line of storage buildings.
Located at 18-33 41 St. in Astoria, the hilltop mansion originally sat on 440 acres of land, and overlooks the still-in-operation Steinway & Sons piano factory.
Like many other immigrants, the Steinways, who came from Germany in the mid-1800s, were manufacturers and entrepreneurs. Steinway & Sons is the most prominent of the concert piano companies, known for making instruments of high quality and for its influential inventions during the time of piano development.
The house was put up for sale after the last owner’s death in 2010 and the property was eventually purchased by Sal Lucchese and Philip Loria in 2014. Originally, groups such as the Friends of Steinway Mansion were concerned as to what the new owners had in mind for the home, but it soon became clear when trees on the property were cut down in April, around the start of the excavation.
“All of the trees have been cut down around the mansion!” said a Facebook post from the Friends of Steinway Mansion’s page on April 23. The actual construction has been happening since early June. Since then, a mixture of concern and confusion has been expressed via social media by Queens residents who care about the history behind the beautiful home.
An anonymous Queens blogger, going by the name George the Atheist, said in an email that, “This heavy construction activity will probably damage the interior and exterior of the building. In my estimation, not only should the mansion be preserved, but also the campus surrounding it — the neighboring lots on which the backhoes, piledrivers and dump trucks are sitting.”
The blogger sent an open letter to the owner of Steinway & Sons, the billionaire philanthropist and benefactor John Paulson, who was born and bred in Queens. George is still waiting for a response to the letter. “I call Mr. Paulson the deus ex machina,” said the Queens blogger. “He is the only one who can, I believe, extricate this architectural mess from the ins and outs of political ignorance.”
On behalf of Paulson’s piano company, spokesperson Stephen Millikin said in an email that, “Steinway & Sons is extremely proud of its New York heritage and fully supports efforts by local government and civic groups to preserve the Steinway Mansion and uphold its landmark status.” He also noted that since the land is privately owned, the company does not have information on any underway construction. The company did not directly respond to a question about whether he has any plans related to the property.
The Friends of Steinway Mansion, also known as FoSM, is an organization dedicated to the preservation and restoration of the Astoria landmark. Bob Singleton, a member of FoSM and a board member of the Greater Astoria Historical Society, told the Chronicle in a phone interview that their goal remains gaining the support of political leaders who can stop the work being done around the mansion that historians fear will damage the home.
Singleton said various Queens political leaders such as Borough President Melinda Katz, Councilmen Costa Constantinides (D-Astoria) and Jimmy Van Bramer (D-Sunnyside), Assemblywomen Aravella Simotas (D-Astoria) and Cathy Nolan (D-Sunnyside) and others have been approached about protecting the mansion, but without much success.
When asked by the Chronicle to confirm they have been contacted about the situation, Katz and Nolan were the only elected officials who did not respond.
The press office of Van Bramer, said, “We have been approached about the mansion and the councilman fully supports the Friends group and would give support in any way he can if there was something he could do, but it’s a tricky situation when it comes to private property.”
Constantinides spoke to the Chronicle about the construction in May. “Making changes that members of the public would want would be a monumental undertaking, needing at least $1.5 million to buy the building, $3 million to renovate it, plus operating funds,” he said.
Although many are upset and concerned by what’s happening, the construction is indeed protected by law. The Queens Historical Society explained that even though its members care as well, there is not much that they can do. “As long as they are following the law, we don’t really have a leg to stand on,” said the board’s president, Pat Sherwood.
The Friends group has an open petition on its website that states, “Local legislative support is crucial in achieving our goals of purchasing, restoring and opening the Steinway Mansion to the public. Sign our petition and show local legislatures we have public support.”
Jeffrey Kroessler, on the board of the Greater Astoria Historical Society, said he is “boggled” by the construction in a phone interview.
“This is willful desecration of the first historical landmark to be named in Queens, and it is definitely a tragedy,” said Kroessler. “If the mansion was located in Manhattan, this would never be accepted.”
Like Singleton, the big question Kroessler has is why no one in politics stepped in to protect the landmark. “I have reached out to many political leaders, but none of them seem to have any other ideas for the mansion other than these warehouses and have turned their backs on the matter,” he said.
The FoSM have also proposed a Steinway Arts District, anchored by the factory and mansion. The latter would be a learning center and performance space, but with the construction happening that dream may never be a possibility.
“Queens needs arts districts, and the Steinway Mansion could be a hub for creativity, education and understanding in Astoria instead of just getting closed in by warehouses,” said Singleton.
Those who are passionate about the mansion and keeping a beautiful Queens landmark alive are determined to save it, but it would appear that unless someone willing to restore the land purchases it or an end is put to the warehouse development, this hidden gem of Queens will become just that, tucked away by storage buildings that match the surrounding industrial area.