Piano’s Sound Rated 24 Karat
Music: THE GILT STEINWAY IS A MARVEL OF A BYGONE TIME, WHEN CRAFTSMEN SPENT YEARS ON INSTRUMENTS.
By NANCY WRIDE
TIMES STAFF WRITER
This is the tale of a 24-karat gold Steinway that would make Leberace drool.
First thought: Spectacky!
Third thought: Vegas?
But no, its new home-unless you want to buy it of course is in industrial Signal Hill. It sits in a tidy store with classic European pianos, in a neighborhood of new industrial offices and old dingy upholstery shops.
There, lifelong piano tuner Herlberto Lurgenstein and his partner are the keepers of the $ 1.2-million piano, commissioned in 1903 to mark Steinway & Sons’ 50th anniversary. A second piano, also gilt but boasting portraits of patriots from the original 13 colonies, is owned by the Smithsonian Institution in Washington.
In bright light the Signal hill instrument could make you squint. With the lights dimmed, and its life story told, the piano’s charm grows.
When the ivory keys create music, the deep, gorgeous sound is intoxicating. Even one handed “Heart and Soul” sounds good on this piano. One theory is that gold leaf mixed into the varnish is the instrument’s secret to almost organ-like amplification.
“It’s not a piano,” said a professional jazz pianist who works for a Steinway competitor. “It’s an orchestra.”
The life of this oddball piano and the caretakers who owned it along its unlikely path to Signal Hill are marvels of a bygone time, when craftsmen spent years on instruments and the piano was the heart of many a family parlor.
The instrument’s genealogy has been researched from Steinway to its present owner, who entrusted it to Lurgenstein, his friend of 30 years. And the history that follows is offered by Lurgenstein, an Argentine who immigrated in 1965 to Michigan and has rebuilt and restored pianos for major stage venues and the likes of Arthur Rubenstein and Victor Borge.
When the two special pianos were created, bodies were gilded in 24-karat. One was to be sold, the other presented to the White House as a gift to the country.
They were designed by the head of Steinway’s art case department, Joseph Burr Tiffany, a distant cousin of the famous Tiffany & Co. founder. Two famous Parisian woodcarvers were summoned to the Steinway factory on New York’s Long Island to build the mahogany pianos.
The first owner of the one now with Lurgenstein was a prominent New York banker, William Frederick Stafford, who lived in the Plaza Hotel. He died there in 1918, and his estate returned the piano to the Steinway company.
That year, Benjamin Sawtelle Hanchett, builder of the Grand Rapids, Holland & Lake Michigan Railway and a University of Michigan regent, bought the gold piano for his 16-year-old daughter, and it remained in the Hanchett family until an estate sale in the early 1980’s.
A Detroit piano company owner, George Michalski, purchased the instrument, and its rejuvenation began. Over 14 years, the internal parts of the instrument were restored. More recently, according to a cover story, in the Technicians Journal, the refinishing of the piano’s exterior commenced. The work was done by Glen Hart, who wrote the story about his gilding work. “The methods used,” he said, “were the true gilding methods of centuries past.”
A water gilding technique was employed on the intricately carved legs of the piano. Sheets of 24-karat gold were cut into 60,000 individual pieces for the finish on the piano case. In all, Hart said, the process took 16 months.
The owner got his good friend Lurgenstein to take custody. Even that was a major undertaking. No trucking firm would move the piano, unwilling to accept liability for an irreplaceable instrument. Lurgenstein had to fetch it himself.
He returned with the piano on a Wednesday in December. Initially Lurgenstein said, the thought was that it would get the white-glove treatment with a velvet rope perimeter. But instead that Sunday, they hosted a children’s piano recital.
It is hard to imagine the furnishings today that would hold their own beside this piano.
“This piano is extraordinary,” raved Wini Jackson, a 55-year-old gospel pianist from the South who visits the Pianocraft store regularly.
“The gold was put there, I think to beckon you to the piano. But it’s the mixture of the history of the piano and the sound, which has a very distinctive gut sound, that makes it ring true to a time before. Like a jewel that’s been lost and now it’s found.”
Fully restored inside and out, George Michalski had a decision to make. Had the time come to send his Golden Grand back into the world? He turned to fellow piano craftsman and personal friend of thirty, Herlberto Lurgenstein. An Argentine, Herlberto worked on pianos for the likes of Arthur Rubenstein and Victor Borge.
Lurgenstein agreed to take the piano on consignment back to European Pianocraft in Signal Hill, California. On December 7th, 2001. Lurgenstein moved the piano from Michigan to California himself because no trucking firm was willing to accept liability for irreplaceable instrument.
September issue 2000
By Glen Hart
Recently I had the privilege of restoring a 1903 Steinway, model B (7 feet), art case grand piano. I trained in New York City and gild under the name “Hart of Gold” in Grand Junction, Colorado. The owner of the piano contacted Steinway and Sons and was referred to me for restoration of the cabinet.
The methods I used on great works of art throughout history requires the water gilding method. The process of water gilding is an art that takes many years to learn and perfect. Recipes of the old masters were carefully guarded secrets and the beauty of these traditional recipes is that they are fully restorable.
An object that is oil gilt is difficult to look at. It has no depth, no dimension. The eye is not directed anywhere and has nowhere to focus.
Burnished water gilding, on the other hand, is alive with light. At one angle the gold appears white while at another is black. As you walk around it the surface “crawls” with light and it never appears the same twice. One look at it for years and still be inspired. With the proper combination of burnish and matte finishes, a good gilder can direct the eye of the viewer where he wants it. The object takes on depth, dimension and beauty, which is achieved in no other way. These nuances are not self evident to the untrained eye and ofter the observer has no idea why he prefers one work over another.
Approximately 6,500 full of sheets of gold, cut into 60,000 individual pieces, were laid on the piano and the process took 16 months to complete.
GEORGE J. MICHALSKI
Born in Poland, pianos were to become the life work and passion of George Michalski.
His adolescent years were spent in music school learning keyboard and wood-wind instruments. In 1957, at the age of 25, he decided to make his passion his profession and was admitted to the Poznan School of Piano Technology in Poznan, Poland. He received his Masters of Piano Technology in 1963. That same year, he opened up his first piano restoration shop in Elblag, Poland. Two years later, he and his wife, Alice, immigrated to Australia.
In 1967, Steinway & Sons facilitated his family’s move from Australia to Buffalo, New York. This was the beginning of a 35 year association with Steinway. One year later, George took his skills to Smiley Brothers, the exclusive Steinway outlet in Detroit, Michigan.
After 12 years with Smiley Brothers, George established the Forte Piano Company in Detroit, Michigan. Michalski has prepared instruments for concert pianists Oscar Peterson and Witolt Malcurzynski. The Detroit concert Hall and others around the country enjoy the sound of his pianos.
Many famous instruments have passed through the gifted hands of George Michalski, but none as breathtaking and significant as his 1904 Steinway Golden Grand.
THE RESTORATION OF THE GOLDEN GRAND
Following the recommendation of Steinway Chairman, John H. Steinway, George Michalski entrusted the interior restoration to renowned piano conservationist, Lloyd Meyer of Camilleri Pianoworks LTD in New York.
Famous concert artists and leading institutions like The Juilliard School of Music and The Peabody Conservatory have relied on Camilleri to restore their cherished instruments.
The project began in November 1986 and took 5 months to complete. Meyer installed a new soundboard, pin block, strings, and action to the 1904 Ayuso-carved Steinway.
Michalski’s prized piano joined an elite list of Steinway restored by Camilleri Pianoworks.
The Alma-Tadema Steinway made in 1883 for Henry G. Marquand, then president of the New York Metropolitan Museum, and purchased at Sotheby’s in 1980 for $390,000, was also given to Camilleri for their expert restoration. It subsequently sold at Christie’s in 1998 for $1.2 Million to the Sterling and Francine Clark Art Institute in Williamstown, Massachusetts.
In July of 1995, eight years after the piano’s interior restoration, George Michalski attended the PTG (Piano Technician Guild) Convention, held that year at the Hyatt Regency Hotel in Dearborn, Michigan. Michalski had made the decision to have the piano completely re gilded and asked the Steinway representatives in attendance for a referral. Without hesitation, they suggested Glen Hart of Grand Junction, Colorado who also was attending the convention.
Hart enthusiastically took on the assignment but his calendar was booked through September 1998. In October 1998, Glen commenced work on Michalski’s piano at his Hart of Gold gilding studio. Over a 16 month period of time, 6,500 full sheets of gold cut into 60,000 individual pieces were applied to the Golden Grand. The gilding project was featured as the cover story in the September 2000 issue of Piano Technicians Journal. The present value of the 24 karat gold leaf finish exceeds $80,000.
SPECIAL SUNDAY EDITION
June 19, 1983
One Hundred and Thirty Years of Service to Music
John H. Steinway, great grandson of founder Henry Engelhard Steinway and, at that time, Chairman of Steinway & Sons had talked with George Michalski on several occasions over the years.
In the spring of 1985, he met up with George at Hammel Music in Linovia, Michigan. When Michalski put pictures of his prized piano in front of the Chairman, he told George, “Sir, you have a true treasure”.
George solicited Steinway’s opinion on whom should perform the interior restoration. Former employees, Lloyd Meyer and Bob Philbin, were his choice. The two had founded Camilleri Pianoworks in New York where they carried on the Steinway tradition of excellence.
Michalski took the Chairman’s advice and in November 1986, brought the Golden Grand to Camilleri Pianowork’s restoration studio in the Chelsea district of Manhattan.
From STEINWAY by Ronald V. Ratcliffe
The Ayuso family, father and two sons, were responsible for the elaboration of numerous pianos for Steinway & sons. Juan Ayuso was a French citizen, born in Bordeaux to parents who had emigrated from the Basque region of Spain in 1848. Juan and his sons Eugene and Severo were principally wood carvers and their ornate designs reflect great craftsmanship in shaping instrument cases – including the wooden legs, pedal lyres, and music desks – into the most graceful and intricate forms.
Ayuso-carved Steinways were coveted by the elite. Wealthy citizens like F.W. Woolworth, George J. Gould and Cornelius Vanderbilt commissioned Steinway’s gifted artist to carve custom piano cases for their estates. His famous Steinway 50th Anniversary piano designed for the White house and now resting in the Smithsonian showcased his exceptional talent. Intricate seals of the thirteen original American colonies were meticulously carved around the piano as Juan turned wood into treasured art.
The year was 1903, and a momentous time it was for the Steinway family as their renowned piano company had reached a milestone, 50 years.
Joseph Burr Tiffany, a relative of Tiffany & Company’s founder Louis Comfort Tiffany, was Steinway’s chief designer for their celebrated Art Case Department. To commemorate this historic golden anniversary, Tiffany commissioned his top artists to design several Golden Grand pianos.
The most famous was designed by R.H. and J.H. Hunt to be presented to the White House as a gift to the country. Juan Ayuso, Steinway’s carver extraordinaire, crafted the seals of the thirteen original American colonies that were gilded in 24 Carat gold. The piano was presented by the Steinway family to President Theodore Roosevelt and is now displayed in the National Museum of American History, Smithsonian Institution, Washington, D.C.
Another golden grand was designed by Tiffany himself and executed, once again by Juan Ayuso. An imposing Louis XV motif was meticulously carved from solid mahogany then clad in 24 Carat gold. The ornately carved legs were gilded in 22 Carat gold. The piano, serial # 108, 815, was 6 feet 10 inches in length.
Completed on February 5th, 1904, the piano was purchased by William Stafford, a prominent New Yorker Banker, and kept at his Plaza Hotel residence. He died there in 1918, and his estate returned the piano to the Steinway Company.
On November 20th, 1919 Benjamin Sawtelle Hanchett, builder of the Grand Rapids, Holland and Lake Michigan Railways and a University of Michigan regent, bought the gold piano for his 16 year-old daughter. It remained in their family until 1983.
George Michalski, Forte Piano purchased the piano on July 15th, 1983.
From STEINWAY by Ronald V. Ratcliffe
In 1897 Joseph Burr Tiffany (1856-1917), from the illustrious family that founded Tiffany & Co., was appointed to head the newly established Art Case Department for Steinway & Co.
J. Burr Tiffany received an aesthetic education in the family business and subsequently studied with Adrian Pottier, nephew of the founder and principal in the New York design firm Pottier and Stymus, which had previously decorated a number of Steinway pianos. Pottier and Stymus along with Herter Brothers were the most celebrated American furniture makers of their time. Tiffany is credited with the promotional coup of getting a Steinway piano to the White House. He oversaw the design and execution of the piano, serial number 100,000, which was presented in 1903 during the term of Theodore Roosevelt.
Tiffany held his post until 1912 and under his guidance many of Steinway’s most significant pianos assumed their place in history.