This week, we continue our series of deep dives into the histories of storied addresses.
At the end of the 19th century, the piano factory of Helmuth Kranich and his partner Jacques Bach at 237 East 23rd Street was flourishing. The partners could hardly have known, as they imported exotic woods for the instruments they crafted and took out ads in the local papers, what challenges the coming decades would bring.
Far uptown, on an estate in Washington Heights, the teachers and students at a private boarding school for deaf children worked away on their lessons. They labored unaware of the coming shifts in the country’s perspective on education or how these changes would lead to the creation of a new public school for the deaf and hard of hearing on East 23rd Street, a school so successful it would eventually expand and take over the area that once was a piano factory. Today, a well-worn piano sits in the corner of the school’s auditorium and accompanies students as they sing in mixed vocal and sign-language choirs. It is one of the last remnants of the building’s rich musical history.
The American Sign Language and English School now covers almost half of the block between 2nd and 3rd Avenues on the north side of 23rd street, just across the street from Goodwill and the Muhlenberg branch of the New York Public Library. The Kranich and Bach piano factory took up only about one third of this space. From the sidewalk, New York City’s ubiquitous forest green scaffolding obscures the front of most of the building because the school is replacing its windows. But when students and teachers enter through the small double doors, they encounter a bright and bustling entry hall full of children’s artwork and framed photographs that document the history of the school.
The building now houses two schools, one for high school students and one for K-8, that are part of the New York public school system and teach about 400 students from all five boroughs. Many students attend for the specialized services for deaf and hard of hearing children, but others enroll to develop their skill in communicating with a family member or just to learn more about American Sign Language and deaf culture.
When Kranich the piano-maker arrived in New York in 1851 at age 18, music was already the family business. His father was an acclaimed organist and Kranich himself had been apprenticing and working at various other piano and organ factories since his arrival in New York from Germany. He had previously worked for Schomaker and Sons and Steinway and Sons before he, Bach, and 15 other partners started a cooperative piano firm they called the New York Pianoforte Company. That early venture failed, however, and just two years later, in 1866, six men, lead by Kranich and Bach, split away to start their own company.
The partners worked from a number of city locations before moving into the space on 23rd Street near Second Avenue, where, in 1891, they built their brand-new, seven-story factory. By then, however, both men were in failing health and ceded leadership of the firm to their sons; Frederick Kranich, Alvin Kranich, and Louis Bach became the company’s directors and chief officers. The building had a showroom on the first two floors and the factory occupied the five upper stories.
The land they chose had once been part of the sprawling 130-acre Rose Hill Farm, originally owned by James De Lancey, the chief justice of the New York Supreme Court in 1733 and the governor of the Province of New York from 1753-1760. At the peak of the farm’s popularity, George Washington stayed as a guest and the vast fruit orchards and grazing land stretched from the eastern shore of Manhattan Island to what is now 4th Avenue between 21st and 30th Streets. A century later, at the time Kranich and Bach started to build, much of the farmland had already been replaced with brick warehouses, blacksmith shops, and stables for the horse-drawn carriages that navigated the city streets.
The factory opened at the crest of a new wave of popularity for pianos in the United States. Immigrants were arriving in large numbers, and as these New Yorkers and their families rose into the middle class, pianos became a symbol of their success and the centerpiece of their homes. Kranich and Bach advertised their products directly to these new customers, promising them a place among the city’s cultured sophisticates. The market for pianos was so strong that in 1900, there were over 300 piano makers in the United States and piano sales were a startling 1/120 of the total national economy. In contrast, there are only eight piano companies active in the country today and their sales contribute about as much to the overall US GDP as the sale of Skittles.
Meanwhile, by 1906, the families of deaf children in New York began to push Mayor George Brinton McClellan for a public day school option for their children. At the time, New York had three schools for the deaf, but all were residential with high tuition and lodging fees. By 1908, McClellan agreed and PS 47 School for the Deaf was established. The teachers and new pupils started the school in a warehouse built in 1865 on East 23rd street, right next to the piano factory.
For much of the school’s early existence, teachers believed that their goal was to enable deaf children to function in society as much like hearing people as possible. This meant that PS 47 students were taught to read lips, interpret the sounds they could, and develop their speaking skills. They were prohibited from using sign language. The reasoning was that, if children relied on signing for their communication, they would not learn to interact successfully with hearing people. Teachers and families feared that when children who used hand signs graduated, they would be unprepared to find work. This theory was popularly accepted across the country and students flocked to the school.
Next door, business was booming. Kranich and Bach had been introducing patents for their piano designs since the company was founded; by the 1920s, their unique products were quite successful. Player pianos, instruments that had become widely popular because they could produce beautiful songs with the just turn of a handle, became best-sellers. Ragtime songs, Broadway show tunes, and early jazz could all be heard echoing in the halls New York households, even for families in which no one who had the skills to play a standard piano.
But by 1923, the business faced new strains. Helmuth Kranich’s widow, Mary, and the other stockholders sued the company, led by her son Frederick, for what they charged were their rightful dividends denied. They alleged that the officers and directors of the company had been taking unlawful salaries since 1916. Alvin Kranich was once an officer of the company himself but left to serve in World War I and was interned in Germany. He joined the suit with his mother after he was released from the camp but the company declined to send him any remittances to make his journey back home in steerage class more comfortable. The court originally ordered Frederick and others to pay back the excess salaries but the decision was eventually overturned on the argument that the high salaries were justified and that the withholding of dividends was appropriate given the changing business conditions.
By 1926, the school for the deaf had outgrown the crumbling warehouse building and needed improved lighting, plumbing, and classroom space. The school district decided to extend the building north to 24th Street where it had a small stable demolished to build an annex for the school. Shortly after, they tore down the old warehouse and built a new school building on 23rd Street, connecting it to the section on 24th Street with a narrow corridor.
Less than three years after this boom in construction modernized the look of 23rd Street, the stock market crashed, severely shrinking the market for new pianos. Kranich and Bach, like so many other companies in the Great Depression, started to struggle. The company tried to adjust to meet the needs of its customers and, in 1934, it downsized production and began making a new miniaturized line of grand pianos called “grandette pianos.”
World War II shook the market again as supplies including wood became scarce and nearly all piano manufacturing was forced to stop. US piano makers began to consolidate into a few large companies and in 1946, Winter and Company bought Kranich and Bach and the building on 23rd Street became a showroom for a variety of piano makes.
The war also had an impact on the students at the school, at this point renamed JHS 47. Because many soldiers suffered hearing loss during combat, the needs of the deaf population in New York started to gain more public attention. By the 1950s, the school, which had grown to over 500 students, started offering extension classes for adults, and was receiving support in the form of donated supplies from hearing aid companies in the city.
Then, in 1964, an epidemic of rubella swept across the country. Some 12.5 million children in the United States were infected and 11,000 children were born deaf. By the 1970s, these children were entering the public school system. The influx of students and the wishes of their families to communicate freely with their children hastened the development of new ideas about deaf education.
As enrollment soared and more space became necessary, JHS 47 opened two annex buildings. In 1973, the school decided that in one of the annexes, they would experiment with a new kind of education called total communication. The new curriculum reversed course from its previous philosophy and began to teach and encourage students to sign. The main school building continued to use the oral-only method of teaching, but the experiment was the start of a change that would eventually transform the education system for deaf students. The use of sign language enabled more communication between children and their families and with more exposure, people started to recognize American Sign Language as a full and nuanced language.
The domestic piano industry, however, experienced no such great transformation to carry it forward. Electronic pianos, pianos made in other countries, and radios were all competing for the money and attention of the American consumers. In 1959, Winter & Co. was bought by Aeolian-American Piano Company. The new owner retained the piano showroom on 23rd Street but the Kranich and Bach name began to fade in significance.
The Janssen Piano Company briefly owned the factory building before it fell into disrepair and the city of New York took over the space in 1969. In 1973, the old building was demolished and the city built an extension for JHS 47 on the lot. At the same time, 401 Second Avenue Inc. began construction of the 27-story Cooper Gramercy apartment building that now sits on top of the school.
With the old showroom demolished and piano sales dwindling, the Wurlitzer piano company bought Aeolian-American in 1985 and then three years later, Baldwin bought out Wurlitzer. Finally, Gibson bought Baldwin in 2001. Today, there are fewer than ten surviving piano companies in the United States and Gibson retains ownership of the Kranich and Bach name.
The grand piano sitting in the school, a Krakauer, not a Kranich and Bach, now has missing keys and a century’s worth of deep scratches. Yet it still occupies a place of honor in the school’s auditorium. For regular use, the music department now favors a smaller, black and white zebra-striped upright, kept on the stage of the school’s theater.
That doesn’t mean the grand piano is going anywhere, though, especially if the alumni who run a small second floor museum about the school’s history have any say. It represents part of the school’s long history—although parts of that history remain mysterious. The alumni with the best knowledge of the school had an animated debate in sign language about how the piano became part of the school’s property. But regardless of where it came from, none of them would want to see it go.
“I graduated here in 1957,” said Dorothy Cohler through an interpreter, “I always liked when we would gather around and sing ‘Anchors Aweigh.’”