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Nancy Ruhling

Nancy Ruhling

Posted: January 3, 2011 11:28 AM

"I want to die in this house."

That's what Michael Halberian, owner of the storied Steinway Mansion, declared late on Christmas Eve.

Three days later, the house that brought Michael life took him back into its arms for eternity.

Michael, who turned 83 in November, was a consummate storyteller. He had a million of them, and he loved to enthrall his listeners with every detail. He didn't like to talk about himself so much as he did about the mansion, where he lived most of his life.

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Photo by Nancy A. Ruhling
Michael at the front entrance to the mansion.

He's not around to tell his final story, so I'll have to do it on his behalf. I don't think he'd mind, and I rather hope that he'd be pleased to have me do it.

I met Michael in the brutal heat of last summer when he was trying to sell the mansion. Although he told me he was all set to move into a two-bedroom condo when he found a buyer, I could tell his heart wouldn't ever let him do that. After all, where would he put Kaka, his pet rooster, and his dogs, Gina and Blackie?

Michael was learning to use a computer, and when my blog about him was posted, I walked him through the steps of finding it. He was as excited as a kid taking his first bike ride without training wheels.

We both loved antiques; I invited him to see my collection, but we never got around to setting a date. He asked me whether I wanted to play chess.

The months passed and the mansion remained on the market. Michael didn't seem to mind. I spoke with him again in October when he hosted an open house that showcased the 27-room 1856 mansion in all its glory. Dressed in an elegant black suit, he held court in the library, surrounded by the thousands of books in his collection. (More photos.)

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Photo by Nancy A. Ruhling
Michael and the mansion in their younger days.


On Dec. 27, the day the great blizzard of 2010 was winding down, Michael wasn't feeling well. Someone called 911 that afternoon. The Steinway Mansion sits atop a high hill on 41st Street. Even on bright sunny days, the road, if you can even call it that, isn't the easiest to navigate.

In retrospect, there were signs that things were changing, but nobody took special note of them. First, Michael's dog Gina died. She was an old girl with fluffy ginger fur, so everyone figured it was her time to go. Then the crowing Kaka, who was merely a spring chicken, disappeared. The scuttlebutt was that a raccoon invited him to Sunday dinner.

When help didn't come quickly on Dec. 27 and Michael continued to have trouble breathing, it was decided that he needed to be driven to the hospital. As he was being walked to the car, he collapsed outside the mansion's magnificent wrought-iron gate.

Someone ran for blankets to cover Michael as he lay on the frosty, snow-covered ground. Again, 911 was called.

When the paramedics arrived some 40 minutes later -- they came in an SUV, not an ambulance -- Michael was not responsive. They carried him into the house and placed him under the motorized crystal chandelier that's as big as a hearse.

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Photo by Nancy A. Ruhling
Michael in his library, which wasn't large enough for all his books.

"I worked on him under the chandelier," one of the paramedics said. "It looked like something from Phantom of the Opera. It moved up and down. It was spooky and surreal. There were dogs barking, and I saw a suit of armor and a brass telescope and marble statues as I was intubating him."

All efforts failed and at 6:55 p.m. on Dec. 27, the official time of death, Michael left this world just as he intended. He was a victim not only of a heart attack but also of the blizzard. Immediate help undoubtedly would have given him more of a fighting chance, but it might have cheated him out of his destiny.

"I've done countless cardiac arrests in my career," the paramedic said. "If this had been a regular, routine day without the snow delay, he'd probably still be walking around."

Although the paramedic makes it a habit never to follow up on the people he helps, in this case, he Googled Steinway Mansion, which is what people on the scene that night told him the place was called. "This is the one case I will never, ever forget," he said.

It's not surprising that even in death Michael had such a powerful hold on a stranger: Michael was a most beloved Astoria Character, one whose place can never be taken no matter who becomes the next keeper of the mansion.

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Photo by Nancy A. Ruhling
Michael Halberian, 1927-2010

They don't make mansions like the Steinway any more, and Michael, they don't make guys like you any more.

I guess it's OK to say it now, Michael: It really shouldn't be called the Steinway Mansion. You lived in it the longest and loved it the most. It will always be Michael's Mansion.

Mark Twain, that other storyteller, came and went with Halley's Comet; Michael made the mansion his shooting star.

The two-day wake was held in the mansion's front parlor, where the light of the giant chandelier cast the shadow of a smile on Michael's face.

Nancy A. Ruhling may be reached at Nruhling@gmail.com.
Copyright 2011 by Nancy A. Ruhling

 

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