Hard-core Ann Arborites know that the historic Kempf House on Division was owned and occupied by music teacher Reuben Kempf and his family, and that the Kempfs’ Steinway, manufactured in 1877, is reputed to have been the first grand piano in Ann Arbor. Like many a senior citizen, the piano is still functional but frail due to a chronic condition, in this case, a cracked soundboard. As you might expect, this condition has a serious effect on the piano’s sound.
In its heyday, the piano was a workhorse. When the University of Michigan needed a grand piano for a recital, it borrowed the Kempfs’ piano. The massive instrument was turned on its side, divested of its legs, and trundled out the door, typically to University Hall, the forerunner of Hill Auditorium. Reuben Kempf was not even the piano’s first owner. He purchased it from a U-M student.
The piano’s antiquity is reflected in its design. The keyboard has eighty-five ivory-covered keys, rather than the modern eighty-eight. Those keys activate a hammer, which strikes the strings using a much simpler system than the complex modern “grand” action. In addition to being cracked, the Kempf House piano soundboard has lost its “crown,” and the belly is a hodgepodge of repaired hammers, worn, loose pulleys, shims, and corroded plating.
Qualified technicians and experts in piano history and repair have offered disparate and contradictory opinions about the sound of the Kempf House piano–whether it still “sings”–and about what should be done with it. As with many antiques, there are different approaches that could be taken with the piano: rebuild and restore, or preserve and conserve.
In the 1990s the Kempf House Museum board subscribed to the philosophy of retaining the piano’s original mechanism and preserving it as a museum piece, maintaining and repairing it when needed to keep it functional. The soundboard was restrung and shimmed, standard procedures for preserving an aging piano rather than restoring it. In its current condition, the piano supports the gentle and reverent playing of musicians at Christmas caroling parties and Valentine’s Day teas as well as impromptu performances from random visitors. Minimal though they may be, repairs to the piano to keep it functional are necessary and ongoing.
Since the 1990s, assorted piano specialists have weighed in on the desirability of restoration. Though they are not in complete agreement, their consensus is that the piano has to be rebuilt if it is going to be used for concerts. In the 2000s, the late Ellie Moore, a retired Ann Arbor music teacher, joined the board and began an initiative to replace the piano’s interior with a modern grand piano mechanism in the original rosewood cabinet.
When I first attended the delightful annual Valentine’s Day Victorian tea in 2010, Kjirsten Blander, the board president at that time, told me that the piano needed to be shipped back to the Steinway factory in New York for rebuilding, at a price tag of $70,000. That decision was the result of Ellie Moore’s efforts. Moore died in March 2016 and the initiative was tabled, but she remembered the piano in her will, and donations toward its restoration have been made in her memory, as she requested. The sum received so far is insufficient. The board applied for an Ann Arbor Area Community Foundation grant but did not receive it.
And the philosophical question remains unsettled: should the piano be left as a museum piece, like the other original objects in Kempf House, or should it be restored for use in serious performances? Kempf House board member Ann Dilcher tells me the piano committee that Moore created plans to reconvene. Dilcher suggests that fresh blood on the board might help resolve the piano question. With a bare-bones board of volunteers, it’s difficult for the dedicated caretakers of the house to also make the piano a priority.
Nevertheless, piano experts from the university have recommended rebuilding, and the influence of Moore’s initiative is strong. There is a link on the Kempf House website requesting donations to the Piano Fund, as well as to the Garden Fund, for the other great pride of Kempf House. The Kempf piano might be an ideal project for the university to underwrite for students of piano technology.
For local music lovers looking for a cause, the Kempf House piano awaits. Meanwhile, Kempf House is open for free tours on Sunday afternoons in spring and fall. And the piano features prominently in the house’s annual Family Christmas Carol Sing–see Events, December 4.