Boston’s history is certainly shrouded in mystery-whether it be stories about smuggling tunnels under the North End or an abandoned subway branch located under Tremont Street. Here is the story of another one of those clandestine places beneath Boylston Street; a subterranean concert hall built in the late 1800’s that still exists today known as Steinert Hall.
M. Steinert and Sons piano store was opened for business in Boston in 1883 by Morris Steinert as the only authorized seller of Steinway pianos in the city. The store had several locations around town, finally settling in at 162 Boylston Street in 1896 in a building the Steinert family had designed and built exclusively for their thriving piano business. The new building consisted of office space, a showroom, and a concert hall. At the time, having an adjacent concert hall that could display product and provide entertainment for potential customers was a common trend in the industry and a very good business decision. This concert hall however was unique, as the Steinerts wanted to maintain exceptional acoustics within the hall as well as allowing no outside noise to interfere with performances. Similar to today on Boylston Street — the street noise level is considerable — albeit from heavy traffic not from horse drawn carriages as was the case at the time. The Steinerts decided the only way to soundproof the concert hall was to put it underground — thirty feet underground and two to four floors beneath their piano store. Due to the subterranean insulating properties, along with its elliptical shape, the halls acoustics were near impeccable. Steinert hall also boasted interior domes and high arching walls with panels engraved with the names of master composers Mozart, Beethoven, and Bach to name a few. The hall’s capacity was about 700 people and by 1911 it was being called: the headquarters for music and the arts in the city.
Steinert Hall hosted many great composers and musicians before it was forced to close in 1942. Fritz Kreisler, Harold Bauer, and Josef Hofmann were a few of the greats to perform there, drawn to the hall because of the exceptional acoustics. Soon after the tragic Cocoanut Grove fire, Boston’s fire codes were re-examined by the city and stricter evacuation laws were put into place. Due to the underground design of the hall, it was impossible to meet the new regulations, thereby forcing closure of the once prominent musical space. To this day, the hall still sits beneath the city mostly used as a storage space for old piano parts and office items. Very few get the opportunity to venture down into the hall nowadays unless they happen to be a legendary musician such as Elton John who reportedly asked to see the hall when he was in town performing. Because of the lack of upkeep and neglect, the space has suffered considerable water damage and decay, neither of which was helped by its underground location.
In 2015 M. Steinert and Sons sold the six story office building and showroom as well as Steinert Hall. The good news is that the corporation that bought the property has stated publicly that they are committed to not only restoring the office and retail space, but also to renovate and re-open Steinert Hall someday. The project will certainly be a challenging endeavor, in order to bring the hall into compliance with today’s building codes and safety requirements, but we can only hope that the project is a success and that music will again resonate throughout the subterranean walls of the historic hall in the secret place under the city.
(by Mark Turner)