Fine Tuning At Cunningham Piano Company

September 10, 2014 |  by  |  News  |  , , ,

 

The exterior signs at Cunningham Piano Company get a glowing redux. | Photo: Bradley Maule

The Cunningham Piano Company is housed in two unassuming buildings; one is the birthplace of Louisa May Alcott and a former Masonic Temple, the other is a stable turned casket warehouse. It’s across the street from where George Washington often slept and in the heart of historic Germantown. Both buildings have stories they could tell. Instead they share music — filling the air around them with sonatas and more. Currently engaged in exterior sign restoration, the City of Philadelphia Mural Arts Program is making sure that Cunningham Piano Company will look as good moving into the future as it has sounded for over a century.

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Ye olde facelift, courtesy of the Mural Arts Program. | Photo: Bradley Maule

A pet project of sorts, Mural Arts is working to bring back definition and dynamic color to signs that have stood untouched since the 1950s. The idea for restoring Cunningham Piano’s exterior came as an unsolicited and welcomed surprise to Tim Oliver, the company’s co-owner.

“One day a man came in and almost apologetically asked, ‘I hope you won’t mind if I ask you a question but would you mind if we restored your signs…no charge?’,” said Oliver. He and fellow co-owner Rich Galassini were more than happy to see the project initiated. The weather-beaten and faded signs had become easy to miss. Work began almost immediately.

While the signs don’t really qualify as murals they can indeed be defined as historic signage. “Seeing them restored gives us a sense of pride–it’s like seeing history brought back to life,” said Oliver.

Stand outside Cunningham Piano Company’s factory on Coulter Street and what you will hear are some of the world’s finest craftsmen coaxing beauty out of brokenness. Some of the men are second and third-generation experts in the delicate art of restoring vintage pianos. Several have joined Cunningham Piano after completing long apprenticeships in other shops where they became masters in one narrow skill of the many that comprise piano restoration. There are hundreds of intricacies and 5,000 moving parts involved in rebuilding pianos.

A craftsman at work at Cunningham | Photo: Joseph E.B. Elliott

Photo: Joseph E.B. Elliott

All of the men are preservationists–the specimens they restore are not only antique instruments but architecture that can be heard, history that can be seen and felt. Concert quality instruments and family heirlooms are entrusted to their care for months at a time to the tune of tens of thousands of dollars. At Cunningham Piano all of the work takes place on two floors of the building, accompanied by the sound of old creaking floors and the warm scent of wood varnish.

Wander into the formal showroom a block away on Germantown Avenue and what you will find are Bosendorfers, Steinways, Mason and Hamlins, and Cunningham Piano’s own brand of “Matchless Piano” among other names that command respect in the world of music. You may also find an impromptu concert underway. Performances by renowned pianists here are not uncommon. Cunningham Piano’s collection of instruments and its reputation as the most comprehensive piano restoration facility in the United States brings musicians from around the world to its doors.

Looking from inside the freight elevator into the  floor Cunningham Piano factory | Photo: Joseph E.B. Elliott

Looking from inside the freight elevator onto the floor Cunningham Piano factory | Photo: Joseph E.B. Elliott

The company was founded in 1891 by Irish immigrant, Patrick Cunningham. Its original location was in Philadelphia at 50th and Parkside Avenue, with a showroom located at 11th and Chestnut Street. It wasn’t until after World War II that the business moved to its current location in Germantown, where, almost 70 years later, it has continued to flourish as a local and international classical music destination. Customers come from as far as Vienna and Beijing for pianos that can cost upwards of $80,000.

The Mural Arts team is still in the process of completing the Cunningham Piano project. They have determined which signs can be restored and what needs a complete overhaul. They have repainted one sign, restoring it to its original dynamic color and form. A second, smaller sign, located near the corner roofline of the building, was built from scratch in the style of Cunningham Piano’s original logos.

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New paint puts a smile on Cunningham’s facade. This sign was rendered from an old company logo. | Photo: Bradley Maule

Next up will be the front of the factory building where all of the lettering has faded to the point of near invisibility. Mural Arts will begin work on this next phase of the project as soon as PECO has removed a fuse box from the front of the building so that restoration work can progress safely.

“We’re more of a destination that a drop-in location so the signs are more for fun,” said Oliver. In the end, investing the time in bringing these old signs back to life will undoubtedly strike a bright note for a company proud of its past and optimistic about its future.

About the author

Maria Gorshin is a lifelong writer with twenty years experience writing about travel, leisure, tourism, and entertainment for clients around the globe. She recently served as the lead writer on an archaeology based children's animation series associated with the Supreme Council of Antiquities in Egypt. Previously, Maria contributed to the development of history-based attractions for a leading theme park company. Her first media position was with the Wall Street Journal. She is an enthusiast about all things New York, the city where she was born and raised, and Philadelphia, the city she is just now beginning to explore. She writes about NYC's past and present at CityGirlWrites.blogspot.com and is a frequent contributor to WestSideRag.com and UntappedCities.com.

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12 Comments


  1. Wonderful article full of great info. Thank you Maria.

    • Thank you, James. The team at Cunningham Piano is great and made me fall in love with piano all over again. If you stop in you can be sure you will get even more fascinating details and enjoy listening to pianos at their best.

  2. Really cool article and pictures. This place is right up the block from me and I love these nostalgic paintings they did!

  3. Something (fortunately) must have changed since a news article wrote a few months ago that Cunningham was considering leaving town. The mural must have been a sign, so to speak.

    • Yeah, that was my initial thought. I heard they were having reservations about moving. I hope they decided to stay. Does anyone have any updates? Is their showroom still for sale?

      Please stay Cunningham. We need you!

      • Joe and Nick, earlier this summer the owners of Cunningham Piano began to discuss moving out of Germantown to make their showroom and restoration facility more accessible to a new generation of clients – first-time buyers especially who are more likely to shop at a nearby mall than travel to an out-of-their-way location. No word yet on the final decision.

  4. Wish I could afford to have my antique (Tiger Oak) upright restored (it still plays – just seen a lot of weathering – it was rescued from an unheated porch in MN)

  5. Mary, having your upright restored at Cunningham Piano might cost more than you may have budgeted for but you might like to reach out to them any way – for advice on how (or if) to move forward and a recommendation for less expensive repair in Philadelphia.

  6. We have purchased 3 pianos over the past 50 years from Cunningham. All awesome. Glad to know they are continuing their strong presence here in G’town!

  7. Although I currently reside in Milan, I have lived in New York and Philadelphia and have been pleased to be a Cunningham customer at that time. I just googled them and found this article. Maria, you caught the essence of my experience in your article.

    In fact when I moved here they helped me in the final delivery to my condominium. It was mentioned in their blog:

    http://cunninghampiano.blogspot.com/2009/10/one-of-our-more-unusual-piano.html

  8. M. – Cunningham is a pretty magical place. I’m happy the post captured some of what you experienced. The photos of your piano, midair in Milan, and the story of it’s safe and successful delivery were great to see!

    • Their neon sign is a gem. I hope they restore it along will the wall signs. I hope ANYONE restores the neon–(I’m not looking for a job) its just too good a sign to let rot away.

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