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Mattituck-Laurel Historical Society brings piano from 1880 back to life

History is written, read and studied. Sometimes it can be heard.

That was the case Nov. 28, when musical chords from almost 150 years ago reverberated through the Mattituck-Laurel Historical Society and Museums’ 1799 Jesse Tuthill House. The occasion was a holiday event, centered around the playing of an 1880 square grand piano, believed to be among the last of its kind produced. The Victorian-era piano, which is being restored by the historical society, hadn’t been played or tuned in “easily” at least 60 years, said Mark MacNish, the society’s collections manager and curator.

Robert Harper of Mattituck, a retired elementary school music teacher and member of the historical society, worked the keys, playing for four hours. Dressed in period costume, wearing a top hat and tails, Mr. Harper played Christmas songs for Santa Claus and children.

“It was incredibly special to be in an old house with an old instrument,” Mr. Harper said. He noted that “with the sound from the Victorian era, there were points when literally I got chills because this could have been exactly how it was.”

The sound of history. Art being played, well, on a piece of art.

Just how long the 141-year-old piano has been in the society’s possession and its provenance are questions that have been lost to history.

“We actually don’t know,” Mr. MacNish said. “There’s been a kind of a blip in the continuity of curators and collections managers. The previous curator, Norman Wamback, he died, and a lot of the information that we had on the items in the house went with him.”

Through relentless research, though, Mr. MacNish has learned a lot. Because of their shape and resemblance to a casket, square grand pianos have been referred to as coffin pianos. In 1867, a group of Steinway employees started a new firm, the Central Piano Forte Company, which produced this piano in New York in 1880. By that time, smaller upright pianos, which took up less space, were becoming more fashionable. The serial number on the piano, 1467, indicates it was one of the last handful of these pianos to be made, according to an unpublished article Mr. MacNish wrote.

“Square grands are a bit of a relic of the piano business,” noted Doug Gregg of Southold, who said he’s one of the few piano technicians on the East End. “They were built for only about 25 years and they were an extension of the clavichord design, basically, and they moved on to uprights and conventional grand pianos that we have today. Few have survived.”

Square grand pianos were expensive and took up a lot of space. This piano would not have been cheap, afforded pretty much only by the well-to-do. Its Brazilian rosewood grain was expensive and isn’t readily available today. Its legs are elaborately carved. Its cast-iron frame is artfully detailed.

“For me the most incredible thing is the beauty of the rosewood,” Mr. MacNish said. “It just really catches my eye whenever I walk in the room. You know, the light is always shining on it a little bit differently and it picks up, you know, different aspects of it because it’s just so rich and has so much depth to it and the graining is just so amazing.”

The piano had been sitting closed and unused for years, being used as an oversized table. There was talk of deaccessioning the piano before Mr. MacNish and Mr. Harper began restoring it in June, with the aid of Mr. Gregg.

Finding the black shellac finish in bad condition, they stripped it using denatured alcohol and then did light sanding before applying a new finish with tung oil. It was estimated that between 200 and 300 hours of work has gone into the restoration as they slowly brought the piano’s past glory back to life.

A matching rosewood piano stool was cleaned and pumped with horsehair.

Was this a labor of love?

“Sometimes there are labors of love, sometimes it’s just a labor,” Mr. Harper said. “It’s a lot of work.”

Robert Harper at the 141-year-old piano he has played at Mattituck-Laurel Historical Society and Museum’s 1799 Jesse Tuthill House. (Credit: Bob Liepa)

Photos of the progress of the restoration project may be seen on the society’s Facebook page.

Whereas full-size pianos typically have 88 keys, Mr. MacNish counted only 85 ivory-made keys on this one. Seven of the keys were missing ivory that fell off, but were saved inside the piano along with a rosewood-handled tuning wrench and tuning fork.

As for the how the piano sounded, that was an issue. Mr. Harper recalled the first time he tried playing a couple of notes on the piano. “These upper notes had no relationship to any pitch that was ever invented in music. It was horrible,” he said. “Yeah, nothing sounded right and it didn’t feel right … I thought there’s no way it’s ever going to be playable.”

For help in that area, the society turned to Mr. Gregg, who spent about eight hours over the course of three visits to tune the piano. “It’s a difficult piano to tune,” he said.

In describing the sound the piano makes, he said: “It has a thinner sound than modern pianos and a little more mellow. Thinner meaning not the volume that you get out of a full grand, but it has a sweeter sound, which is what people liked in the late 1800s.”

“That particular piano was in remarkably good condition for its age,” he continued. “I only had to replace a couple of strings. Usually they’re very brittle and they break easily.”

Mr. Gregg said he knows of only one other working square grand piano on the East End. That one sits in a private Greenport home. Both pianos are about the same age, he said.

Pianos of that era served as the center of social occasions. “It was the home entertainment center,” Mr. Gregg said. “There was no radio, obviously no television.”

Like a musical time machine, it’s a connection to a bygone era.

“This was probably in a very high-class house, and usually the wife or the daughter, it was usually the women in the house, learning to play the piano was part of their education, and this was their entertainment,” Mr. Harper said. “This is what they did in the evenings. They’d sit around the piano and they would sing, and sitting here and thinking that as I’m playing … it’s such a great feeling. Not just to look at it, but to actually do what they did, to put their hands where their hands were. It’s quite a thrill.”

One can’t help but wonder what this piano been through. If it had eyes, what would it have seen over the course of its lifetime?

“Every time we bring an old piece back to life, that’s what you think,” Mr. MacNish said. “You become sort of intimately acquainted with it and you sort of look and listen for clues of its story, you know, of the history that it went through, and sometimes you find them.”

Charlie Gueli, the historical society’s secretary, said of the piano, “It’s not something that’s easily found.” He added: “That’s another plus for the historical society. I think it will generate more visits to the museum.”

Call it a historical restoration success story.

Mr. MacNish hopes the piano will be unveiled at a Victorian music soirée in the spring.

“I love the whole story of it, you know,” he said. “I love from beginning to end what we had to go through to get it to this point.”