In erecting a factory that would use its monumental and attractive design to help market its products, the Estey Piano Company took advantage of the building’s prominent site and its ability to be seen from long dis- tances. One early trade card noted its location on “Southern Boulevard near Harlem Bridge,” pointing out the factory’s setting on one of the North Side’s most important thoroughfares, close to one of its earliest river crossings at Third Avenue.136 The factory, indeed, was visible from the Third Avenue Bridge, as it is today; it was also likely visible, as it is now, from the more distant bridge carrying the New York Central—now Metro- North Railroad—over the Harlem,137 and could be seen looking south on Lincoln Avenue, from a point near
It was also clearly visible from the waterfront; one circa-1895 photograph taken from the Har-
lem River shows the Estey Factory rising from behind a paddlewheel steamboat moored on the Harlem’s busy shore.139 Significantly, during the time of the Estey Factory’s planning and construction, its surrounding area was evolving into an important gateway to the Annexed District. The Second Avenue Bridge, under construc- tion by 1884 and completed in 1886, would be the first bridge to bring an elevated railroad from Manhattan to the North Side; this line was expected to have a transformative effect on the area, and its arrival was eagerly anticipated, inspiring several articles on its progress in the Real Estate Record & Builders’ Guide.140 It seems likely that the Estey Piano Company’s management would have expected its factory to be seen by the passen- gers of this new railroad as it curved high over the rail yards near Alexander Avenue and 132nd Street,141 and responded with a building that was sure to be an eye-catching landmark at this key entry point to the growing North Side.
To make the most of the factory’s location—and to get the most marketing value out of it—the Estey Piano Company and its architect endowed the building with an attention-grabbing, four-faced clock tower that remains its signature feature. It was not unusual for large buildings in New York to have noteworthy corner features like the Estey tower; these buildings’ opposite corners were the only places from which pedestrians could take them in in their entirety, and early photographs of the Estey Factory make it clear that that angle, from which the building’s symmetricality and large scale were apparent, was the one, above all others, from
which it was meant to be seen.142
According to Bradley, architects tended to practice “rationalized placement
of ornament” in designing factory buildings, considering decoration to be most appropriate for entrances, tow- ers, and other prominent features;143 the Estey Factory’s tower, which projects two stories above the adjacent roof parapets, and which contained one of the original building’s two main entrances, was its most elaborately ornamented portion. The tower entrance, which featured a low stoop with what appear to have been cast-iron newel posts and railings, was located on the tower’s south face at the second bay in from the corner, echoing a similar entrance two bays north of the clock tower, on the Lincoln Avenue façade. Broad segmental arches, each composed of three header courses of brick and contrasting springers in light-colored stone, spanned the entrance opening and seven large window openings that were set within two-story, corbelled brick recesses on the tower’s south and west faces; these openings, and the stone trim wrapping the window heads at the third and fourth floors, were unique to the tower until they were complemented by identical openings and stone highlights at the eastern end of the 1890 addition. The vertically projecting, upper portion of the clock tower featured recessed panels with “Estey Piano Co.” painted in large, uppercase lettering, and light-colored clock faces reading “Estey Piano,” also in uppercase.144 It was crowned by a machicolated cornice composed of repeating, small round arches beneath a parapet decorated either with terra cotta tiles, or with recessed panels similar to those of the building’s other parapets.
The American factory clock tower had its roots in the cupola of the early-nineteenth-century New Eng- land mill. The cupola marked the factory, like the meetinghouse, as a structure of local importance; it similarly contained a bell, which played a crucial role in organizing people’s daily activities. As historian William H. Pierson, Jr. explains, no architectural feature “was more expressive of the role that each building played in the life of the community than the bell which in the meetinghouse called the congregation to worship and in the factory called the workers to their tasks.”145 By the 1830s, these cupolas were often placed atop towers that were attached to their buildings’ facades; by providing exterior staircases, the towers prevented fires from spreading vertically through the interior of the building, while keeping the factory floor open for workers and machinery. The exterior tower, which would come to house water tanks, sprinkler systems, and other equip- ment, “would become standard in the fully developed nineteenth-century factory,”146 but it played more than a functional role; towers and cupolas, like those of Boston’s massive Chickering & Sons Piano Forte Works— which, upon its 1853 completion, was the country’s largest industrial building—“provided a civic presence