An American dream

Newsday (New York)
July 4, 2004 Sunday

An American dream

BY JAN TYLER. freelance writer.

Michael Halberian’s father, Jack, was a 17-year-old immigrant from
Armenia when he first saw the Steinway Mansion in 1914. In those
days, the imposing structure was the centerpiece of a 440-acre
country estate. Standing on a bluff overlooking the East River in
Astoria, the summer home of the piano-making Steinway family with its
lofty square tower “was to him like a grand stone castle,” says

“My father was a simple tailor; he’d see the ‘castle’ every day from
across the fields on his way to work. To him it was a symbol of what
anyone could aspire to in America. He was a dreamer, but he was
determined to own it one day.”

His father’s dream came true in 1926 – the year Michael was born. The
25-room Steinway mansion, its property reduced to only one acre, came
on the market, and Jack went into debt to come up with the $40,000 he
needed to make it his own.

The house already had a place in history.

William Steinway had purchased the mansion in 1870 from the widow of
Benjamin Pike Jr., the man who built it. A manufacturer of optical
instruments, Pike had images of his stock-in-trade etched into the
glass inserts of a pair of massive walnut doors that connect the
mansion’s twin parlors. “The Smithsonian once wanted to buy those
doors,” says Michael. “But I wouldn’t sell them.”

The house stands in the district once called Steinway Village near
the Steinway & Sons piano factory. The family built homes for its
workers and added municipal improvements that included a trolley line
and a tunnel under the East River used by the city subway system. But
eventually the Steinways abandoned the mansion, where they had hosted
elegant parties, in favor of more fashionable locales and it stood
empty until Jack Halberian purchased it.

“The place was in excellent condition,” says

Michael, “but it had never been wired for electricity; it ran on
gaslight. For some reason the Steinways had shut off the water, which
was piped in from their factory, and the coal furnace sent up more
dust than heat. My father did most of the repairs and upkeep with his
own hands.”

Jack Halberian and his wife Shamie furnished the place with Edwardian
and Victorian pieces that complemented the classic backgrounds – but
they never attempted to alter their home’s architectural integrity.
All the public rooms – including a cavernous library and a demi-lune
dining room – retain their original glory. The parlors are paneled in
age-darkened pine, their 12-foot- high ceilings and wide crown
moldings encrusted with ornately detailed Beaux-Arts sculptured

When his father died 25 years ago, Michael, a restaurateur, moved
back into his boyhood home with his wife and three children. “I put
everything I have into this place, like my father did. I wanted to
honor him and his dream.”

Now retired and divorced, Michael lives amid the fading splendor with
three dogs that patrol the fenced-in property, a lone chicken with
roaming privileges and a pair of house cats. He collects bronze and
marble statuary as well as historical artifacts and assorted
memorabilia that he displays on tables and sideboards and the mantels
of five fireplaces.

“I buy what catches my fancy at the moment,” he says. His main
interest at the moment is a collection of nonfiction books on a
variety of subjects, just a fraction of the more than 30,000 titles
in the library’s floor-to-ceiling shelves and in the upper gallery of
the center hall.

The gallery is reached by a graceful curved staircase illuminated by
a crystal chandelier 7 feet in diameter that he bought at auction. A
motorized mechanism of his making raises and lowers the half-ton
fixture that he believes once sparkled in a Whitney estate and now
hangs from a leaded-glass skylight 30 feet above the main floor.

Like his father before him, Michael is passionate about the survival
of the house. Which is why, in 1966, he applied for – and received –
city, state and national landmark status for it. He speaks with
reverence about his father’s vision and his mother’s warmth and
humor. “No one ever grew up in a more loving atmosphere.”

There was just one element from the mansion’s glory days that Michael
couldn’t preserve. He shows a photograph of the original cast-iron
portico and supporting pillars that distinguished the front entry
even in his childhood. Rusted and worn by time and weather, the
ornate portico would have cost $250,000 to replace. Reluctantly, he
removed it several years ago.

Now the still-impressive pillars stand alone – silent sentries of a
time before a waste treatment plant and industrial complexes intruded
on the pastoral setting, a time when the mansion on the river’s shore
was a symbol of the American dream.

stone castle on a bluff holds on to its place in history. 2)
surrounded by History: The parlor’s intricately carved mantel and
sculptured plaster moldings harken to bygone days. 3) SPLENDOR IN THE
PAST: Michael Halberian’s eclectic collection of antique statuary,
left, is displayed throughout the house. 4) Below, from left:
elaborate moldings around the library skylight; 5) exterior pillars
stand tall against the vagaries of time; 6) ceiling medallion in the
parlor; 7) etched glass in the massive walnut front doors. 8) Newsday
Cover Photo by Bruce Gilbert – A half-ton crystal chandelier hangs 30
feet above the foyer in the Steinway mansion.