Sohmer and Company Piano Factory
2010 photograph of Sohmer and Company Piano Factory by Jim Henderson
Backstory and Context
The Sohmer and Company Piano Factory building was built in the Astoria neighborhood of Queens in 1886 by Hugo Sohmer (1845-1931). He and K. Kuder purchased a New York piano company, Mitchell & Mittauer, in 1872. Before the Astoria factory was constructed, Sohmer and Company was in Manhattan on the corner of Third Avenue and 13th Street. In 1872, New York City contained 171 piano manufacturers. Skilled workers would arrive from Germany with their own tools and workbench, and Mr. Sohmer would meet them at the boat with a horse and wagon, according to his grandson, Harry J. Sohmer, Jr. Sohmer and Company was known for their use of elaborate woods and their history of craftsmanship. the company claims to have built the first ever five foot grand piano in 1884. One piano produced in NYC by Sohmer in 1872 soon after the company was founded was still being used 110 years later in Salida, Colorado.
The six-story, red brick, massive structure fronts Vernon Boulevard and 31st Street in the Long Island City portion of Queens. A New York architectural firm, Berger & Baylies, designed the Romanesque Revival style building facing the East River and Manhattan's Gracie Mansion/ Carl Schurz Park. The structure features a mansard copper-roofed 7-story clock tower at its corner. The tower has two clocks, one facing each street, with bronze Roman numerals and the year "1886." The historic street names "Jamaica" and "Boulevard" are etched into sandstone blocks at the second story.
A twelve-bay expansion to the west facade of the building was completed around 1907, giving the Vernon Boulevard side 25 bays; the 31st Street side has 18 bays. The Vernon Boulevard side has four pedestrian entries and a freight entrance with modern doors.
The company was producing around 3,000 pianos per year when it decided in 1982 to leave Astoria for Connecticut. The company had been acquired by a Connecticut manufacturer of piano parts, Pratt-Read. There were no Sohmer's in the fourth generation of the family willing to carry on the tradition in New York. That left only one piano factory in New York City - the Steinway & Sons factory in Queens. The building on Vernon Boulevard was used as storage space and as a showroom for office equipment.
The former factory building was converted to residential uses one hundred years after its expansion, beginning in 2007, with residential lofts in the second through sixth stories. Two new penthouse additions are above the original roof level but set back from the streetside facades of the building, with sliding glass doors leading to a rooftop terrace. The exterior of the building with its distinctive arched windows and brick and sandstone stringcourses was restored as well. Steel balconies were added facing a courtyard with a one-story addition. The first floor features public space.
The building is significant for its relation to the industry of piano making in New York and for its architectural style, considered to be an American industrial interpretation of the German Romanesque Revival style, or Rundbogenstil. The period of significance lasts from 1886 to 1947 when a lack of demand for pianos led to the company leasing out some of the building space. The National Register listing was finalized in 2014.
Prial, Frank J.. "Sohmer, 'A New York Piano,' to leave city after 110 years." New York Times (New York) August 13th 1982. National ed, B sec, 1-1.
Rulli, Erin. NRHP Nomination form for Sohmer and Company Piano Factory. Washington, DC. National Park Service, 2013.