Just off the well-worn cobblestones in the 5400 block of Germantown Avenue lies one of Germantown’s best-kept secrets — Cunningham Piano Co., which has been making and restoring some of the world’s finest concert pianos for more than 100 years.
Throughout the world, Cunningham is associated with quality. In the 1930s when he composed Porgy and Bess, George Gershwin used a Cunningham piano. Last summer, when the USA Network needed a piano in the first episode of its new mini-series Political Animals, it chose a modern-day Cunningham.
While Cunningham Piano Co. began as a manufacturer of pianos, its business shifted in 1943 to restoring pianos — bringing back the original design, sound and luster of any high-quality piano whether it was a Cunningham, a Steinway, a Baldwin or something else. Today, the pianos come into the shop from all over the world and highly-skilled craftsmen can spend a year or more bringing each one back to life.
“Our goal is to make a piano like new the moment it came out of the factory when it was built,” explained Rich Galassini, a co-owner of the company. As he spoke, Galassini strolled through the company’s showroom where shiny new Cunningham pianos were on display and he wandered through the firm’s restoration factory where workers were busy restoring an 1876 Steinway that had come in from upstate New York.
Cunningham Piano Co. traces its roots to 1891 when Patrick J. Cunningham, an immigrant from Ireland, began making handcrafted acoustic upright and grand pianos in Philadelphia. His business flourished and by the 1920s, Cunningham was the largest producer of player pianos on the East Coast. Click here to hear one of Cunningham’s 1920 player pianos.
During World War II, the company stopped making pianos as workers went off to war. Instead, the firm focused on restoration, building a reputation for quality craftsmanship among music conservatories and leading concert pianists across the United States and in Europe.
In 2008, the firm pivoted again and decided to bring out a new version of the Cunningham piano, this time aiming for both quality and reasonable cost. Although the new Cunningham pianos, which can cost anywhere from $6,000 to $60,000, are not hand crafted, the company says it carefully controls the design and insures the quality.
Galassini credits the firm’s success to relationship building. “It’s not about selling a piece of furniture or selling a keyboard or selling a piano,” he said. “It’s about building relationships. It’s about having people come to us from far away and showing them what we do and helping them.”
Far away includes not just Great Britain and Europe, but also Japan, Korea, China and India, Galassini said.
Inside the company’s factory, workers use a combination of science and art to restore the older pianos, treating each one as unique. “They all have their own individual characteristics – the toning…and the touch,” said Joe Cossolini, one worker. “You come in and hear somebody play your instrument you’ve just finished and there’s a sense of finality,” said another worker.
Jason Andino, who used to work for Steinway, is regarded as a master at piano restoration. On a recent day, he concentrated intensely on drilling holes in a wooden piano component without so much as a diagram, tape measure or rule to guide his moves. He’s that good, Galassini said.
Since every piano is different, the restoration process takes careful research, skilled craftsmanship and patience.
The 1876 Steinway, for instance, arrived in the shop with straight legs that had been added by an owner in the 1950s. To restore the original legs, Cunningham first dug out the records to look at an exact replica. Workers then hand-carved new legs, which replicated the intricately curved architecture of the original legs. Along with other changes, the finished product, Galassini said, will be worth $200,000.
In addition to making and restoring pianos, Cunningham is also a vital player in the Philadelphia cultural scene. It puts on concerts, has lectures and offers master classes a couple times a month in a small music hall located on the second floor of the store. It also supports the renowned Settlement Music School just up Germantown Avenue.
As Galassini put it, “There’s also an awful lot of great things happening in Germantown and we happen to be one of them.”
Carrie Hodousek can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org. Adam Jacyszyn can be reached at email@example.com.