Monday, August 5, 2013

Featured Artifact: Piano # 26,786: A Rediscovery

If you’ve visited the Museum at Morristown NHP sometime in the last 80 years, you’ve probably seen our 1873 Steinway and Sons “Style 2” Rosewood Grand Piano sitting in the auditorium.  Standing at 8’5” long, its impressive size takes up much of the stage.  While a modern Steinway and Sons black lacquer Concert Grand exudes a subtle, understated grace and sophistication, its predecessor was meant to be the flagship of elegance.  It has three delicately carved cabriole style legs, the design of which is mirrored in the applique along the keyboard and side of the piano.  Its rosewood finish is meant to highlight the natural grain of the wood, create a rich brown-red finish, and in the concert setting when the lid would be open for sound projection, create a mirror-like surface so that the audience can see the interior of the piano.  With the brass plate hovering gently above the sounding board, firmly holding the nearly 20 tons of force the taught strings put upon the plate, and the cross strung bass strings that sit above the treble set, creating an intricate web of strings, even the interior of the piano seems a delicate work of art.

But, as beautiful and elegant as this 1873 Steinway and Sons piano is, it has been considered a found object for much of Morristown NHP’s history, or an object that came to be part of the collection but was not accessioned at the time of its arrival, only to be ‘found’ at a later point in time.  So over the course of the past 80 years our Steinway & Sons Grand Piano became something it hadn’t been since production first began on it; a number.  Number 26,786. 

Over the past few months a great deal of research has been done regarding this particular piano, trying to piece together its history between the Steinway & Sons factory in Queens, New York and the Museum Auditorium at Morristown NHP (Barron, 45).  For decades, the earliest known record of the piano was a photograph circa 1940 which showed the piano sitting in the Museum’s Auditorium.  This left almost a 70 year gap in the piano’s recorded history.  With no accession card for the piano, we turned to the copious records left by the Washington Association of New Jersey.

Amid the routine monthly Minutes of the Executive Committee, recording who was present at that meeting and the upkeep of the Ford Mansion, there was a small entry on Dec. 26, 1923 noting a recent donation to the collection.  It reads, “Mrs. Cutler reports that a Concert Grand / Piano, formerly owned by Mrs. Julia A. Wood is / offered by her daughter Mrs. G. E. Armstrong of / 29 Maple Ave., as a present.  On motion this piano / is accepted as a gift from the children of / Mrs. Andrew J. Wood in memory of her” (MORR 5712).  (The slashes indicate line breaks in the original handwritten entry).  So it appears that the Steinway & Sons Grand Piano was a gift to the Washington Association of New Jersey, which was then acquired by the National Park Service in 1933.  Tantalizing as this entry was, it still left a few unanswered questions. 

A view of the piano’s Serial Number; 26,786.

The first of these questions is probably the most obvious.  Where was the piano kept?  The answer, as it turns out, is both simple and quite complicated.  The Washington Association of New Jersey kept a large accession book, detailing all of the items that they had acquired and listing them by where they were kept in the Ford Mansion.  But as there was no listing for the Steinway Piano in the book, the story of the piano starts to become a little more complicated again.  Because of the later addition of the Lafayette Building, little record of which remains today, there was a second smaller accession book created, logging the items in that room.  One of the latter items listed, number 1432, is a description of the very same Concert Grand Piano, donated by the Children of Mrs. Julia A. Steinway (MORR 5712).  A small, handwritten note above the entry notes that the piano was “Moved to New Museum Auditorium” (MORR 5712).
At this point, the story of the Steinway Piano then becomes another retelling of the transition from the Washington Association of New Jersey to the National Park Service in 1933, revealing yet another complication from that historic moment.  When ownership of the property transitioned in 1933, the National Park Service became responsible for all of the artifacts and documents that the Washington Association of New Jersey had acquired.  The daunting tasks of accessioning all of these objects was set upon, the main product of which is the original accession cards that were created in 1933, which contain no record of the Steinway Piano.  However, a second typed record was made, simply listing all of the objects they had acquired from the Washington Association.  Quietly tucked away near the bottom of the last page is number 1432, a Concert Grand Piano with an entry that matches that of the second Accession Book.  Of particular interest, though, is the last line of the entry which notes that the piano is “Now in [the] Museum Auditorium” and is “Not an Antique” (MORR 5712).  Here, then, lies the crux of an 80 year mystery.  When Morristown National Historic Park was created, it seems that the staff at that time did not consider the Steinway Piano part of the historic collection.  Rather, it was a piano that had simply belonged to the Washington Association.  And, as it sat in the Lafayette Room to be seen during meetings and events, so too would it sit in the new Museum Auditorium.  Not a museum piece and not an antique.  That is, until some eighty years later when the story of # 26,786 was rediscovered. 

The saga of Steinway & Sons Piano # 26,786 comes full circle with the reiteration of its early history, before it came to the Washington Association in 1923.  Piano number # 26,786, a “Style 2” Rosewood Grand Piano left the Steinway and Sons showroom in 1875, bound for the home of A. J. Wood in East Orange, New Jersey (Kirkland, correspondence).  After some 48 years with the Wood family, the children of Mrs. Julia A. Wood, the wife of Andrew J. Wood, donated it to the Washington Association of New Jersey in memory of their mother.  And so, 140 years after it was first made in Steinway & Sons factory in Queens, New York it sits in the auditorium of the Museum building at Morristown National Historic Park, no longer just a number, but a part of the collection of Morristown NHP.

Works Cited:

Barron, James. Piano, The Making of a Steinway Concert Grand. New York, NY: Times Books, Henry Holt and Company, LLC, 2006.  Steinway & Sons originally had a few different factory spaces across Manhattan.  It was only in 1870 that Steinway & Sons started to move their operation to Long Island, giving them a space large enough large enough to consolidate work their work to one location, making this piano one of the first generation of Steinway’s to come out of their Long Island location.  For further reading on the early history of Steinway & Sons and to learn how they make their pianos, Barron’s book Piano, The Making of a Steinway Grand is a great place to start. 

Kirkland, David R. Correspondence with Customer Service Administrator. July 17, 2013.

Morristown NHP, Washington Association of New Jersey Records, MORR 5712, Box 3, Folder 1, “Minutes of the Executive Committee”.

Morristown NHP, Washington Association of New Jersey Records, MORR 5712, Box 51, Folder 5, “Accession Catalogue of the Museum Collection of the Washington Association of New Jersey.”

Morristown NHP, Washington Association of New Jersey Records, MORR 5712, Box 51, Folder 1, “Partial Catalogue [Library, Grounds, Attic, Lafayette Rooms] ca. 1902-1932.”

This blog entry by Thomas Price, Drew University. Read more about Thomas HERE.

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