Deep in the basement of the Steinway Piano factory on Steinway Street in Astoria, Queens, a man presses his thumb to a small biometric scanner attached to the wall in a darkened hallway next to a nondescript door. After recognizing the thumbprint as belonging to Todd Sanders, a vice president at the company, the door clicks open to reveal another hallway. A few feet away sits a steel vault door. Once that is opened, a digital voice rings out: “Access granted. Welcome, Mr. Sanders.” As the door opens, a spotlight shines down on The Vault’s jewels—six gorgeous Steinway pianos.
While the Ocean’s 11-style security system is perhaps a bit over-the-top (after all, stealing an entire grand piano from underneath an office building would be a challenge, even for Danny Ocean), its contents are valuable. The room houses limited-edition pianos that all retail for upwards of $200,000. One white Steinway Model D piano, hand-painted with images inspired by Russian composer Modest Mussorgsky’s work and cuckoo clock legs, goes for $2 million. They are all available for purchase, but The Vault is only accessible by invitation, which is available only to a handful of top clientele, and they must be escorted by one of the three people whose thumbprints are encoded in the system.
The Vault is not just for show; it doubles as a testing ground for pianists looking for just the right instrument. It’s where valued clients can try out, say, a John Lennon “Imagine” Model B Spirio modeled after the original white Steinway that Lennon gave to Yoko Ono in 1971. The all-white piano was created in celebration of what would have been the musician’s 70th birthday. It runs $217,000, which explains why most purchasers prefer to take the piano for a test run, so to speak, before making that sort of investment.
To show off the pianos, Steinway worked with lighting designers to install state-of-the-art industrial lighting that illuminates each piano one at a time. It not only gives the impression of playing on stage, a must for an aspiring Lang Lang (or Alicia Keys), but also shows off the piano’s best features. “Lighting a white piano is a very different situation from lighting a wood-grain piano, and that’s a very different situation from something with a lot of painted colors on it,” explains Anthony Gilroy, Steinway’s senior director of marketing and communications for the Americas, who is leading the tour, despite not having biometric access to The Vault.
He explains that the lights were designed to create “any color combination you can dream up” to best show off the subtle hues in the East Indian Rosewood and Macassar Ebony veneers that cover some of the pianos. He also explains that there are spotlights “that make the inside of the piano pop” and look as beautiful as the outside. Each piano is lit independently, so their esteemed visitors can focus on one piano at a time, moving from one to the next—until ultimately all pianos are lit, after the visitor has concluded their close-up inspection of each as they try to choose between a jet-black Lalique Heliconia Model A embedded with crystals and inlaid with silver and that East Indian Rosewood Model B, with a built-in player piano feature which allows the piano to play itself, no talent required.
The room was designed to create the optimal environment for the piano-buying process to give their most important clients not only a private venue to find the right piano, but also a place to experience how it looks, sounds, and feels. That means that the room must be perfect, acoustically speaking, to appeal to the discerning ear of a concert pianist or one of the Steinway artists like Jon Batiste, Billy Joel, or Diana Krall. It also means that the pianos must be constantly tuned. “There’s someone that works full time on keeping these at concert level preparation,” explains Gilroy. “So they’re all in great shape and ready to be wheeled out on stage, and pianos take a lot of work to get to that level and to maintain that level. It’s really a constant job.”
The 166-year-old company came up with the idea for The Vault as a private piano selection room for elite clients awhile ago, but like most construction projects, it took longer than they anticipated to build. “We didn’t want to rush it, because it’s a Steinway,” says Gilroy. “A Steinway takes 11 months from start to finish, and this room probably took about that same 11 months from start to finish.” The result is a high-tech space that gives high-end clients a Bond villain-esque experience. “This isn’t just some showroom,” says Gilroy. “We have state-of-the-art lighting, state-of-the-art acoustics, so that everything is at a Steinway caliber.”
While The Vault is not open to the public, the Steinway factory is open for tours from September through June, before it gets too hot in the non-air-conditioned space to make the heat and humidity-sensitive pianos. If you really want into the vault, try talking to your local Steinway dealer about your interest in a big purchase. Alternatively, the best way to get an invite to Steinway’s vault is the same way you get to Carnegie Hall: Practice!