Germantown: Historic Piano Company Modernizes the Old

Institutional development director Milo Morris describes the crowning process of the soundboard. A curvature is placed into the soundboard to "create a resonating area of air underneath the piano as you play."]

“Without craftsmanship, inspiration is a mere reed shaken in the wind.”

These words of German composer and pianist Johannes Brahms are exemplified by the work of Philadelphia’s oldest piano company.

Portraits of Cunningham Piano Company founder Patrick J. Cunningham (top) and its second owner, Louis Cohen, are proudly displayed in the company's store.

The Cunningham Piano Company was started by Patrick J. Cunningham, an Irish immigrant, in 1891.  “That makes us 120 years old…ish. Sometime this year we will actually announce or say that this is our 120th birthday,” said Milo Morris, Cunningham’s director of institutional development.

Morris is responsible for all of the non-residential customers. He deals with churches, schools, restaurants, hotels, concert halls, theaters, colleges and any other organization that comes to Cunningham to purchase a piano that is not for the home. He has worked at Cunningham since September 2008 and has been an avid piano player since his youth.

Cunningham wasn’t always located in Germantown. Up until Louis Cohen, the factory manager under Cunningham, took over in the 1930s, the company store was at 11th and Chestnut streets and the factory was at 50th Street and Parkside Avenue.  The original factory building still remains.

“Louis made some changes, the biggest of which was moving everything up here to Germantown,” Morris said.

When Cohen purchased the store building, located at 5427 Germantown Ave., it had most recently been a three-story Masonic Temple. Some renovation of the building was conducted, but that process is not yet complete.

“We were trying to put the third story into use as space for a performing arts organization and we discovered that they only have one bathroom up there. The third floor used to be their ceremonial space, and in the Masonic tradition, women weren’t allowed in there, so they really only needed a men’s room, so now we need to build a ladies’ room up there,” Morris said.

The move to Germantown quickly came with another significant change for the company. After manufacturing the Cunningham piano since the company’s inception, Cohen decided to halt production during World War II and move the company into another direction.

“You have to keep in mind that back in those days there were over 300 piano companies in the United States manufacturing pianos and about 10 to 12 right here in Philadelphia alone,” Morris said. “So you got 10 to 12 competitors pumping out pianos pretty much at the same rate you are, the market gets pretty saturated pretty quickly.”

After getting many inquiries about piano restoration, Cohen transitioned Cunningham from a manufacturing company to a remanufacturing company and it has been restoring pianos ever since. All of the restoration takes place at Cunningham’s factory, located around the corner from the store at 26 E. Coulter St.

When Cohen left in the 1970s he handed Cunningham off to his daughters Rose and Dorris. Just a few years ago current co-owners Richard Galassini and Tim Oliver took the company over.

The Cunningham piano eventually found itself back in the marketplace. “We’ve had classical artists choose it over Yamaha and Kawai. Those are other pianos that are in that kind of strata of quality, but ours is sizably less expensive mainly because we don’t have the distribution costs that many other manufactures have,” Galassini said.

But the new Cunninghams aren’t the same. “The Cunningham pianos that you see today are inspired by the original Cunningham pianos from a very basic skeletal perspective, but they are actually not designed to be what the old piano was,” Morris said.

New technologies have completely changed the way pianos are both manufactured and restored, and Cunningham takes pride in embracing the advancements. “There were a variety of materials that became available to humanity through petrochemical processing,” Morris said. “Some really wacky things happened…a lot of wacky things happened with pianos, too, a lot of which never saw the light of day.”

Institutional development director Milo Morris describes the crowning process of the soundboard. A curvature is placed into the soundboard to "create a resonating area of air underneath the piano as you play."

Many of these advancements did make it past experimental stages. Tuning pins changed due to the rise in variety of metal alloys. Finishes, varnishes and lacquers became stronger, more consistent and more reliable.

One of the more significant changes to pianos has been the material the keys are made from. In the past piano keys were made of ivory, but in 1989 an international trade ban was placed on the material.

“Using chemical engineering, the piano industry has created a number of different synthetics to use for the white-key tops,” Morris said. In some cases they mimic the feel of ivory and in others they do not. “Some people prefer to have the feel and texture of an ivory key and that can be simulated.”

Some changes have also made the wear-and-tear of pianos a little less common. The wippen, which is an important part of the piano that causes the rapid motions of the hammers, used to be made of wood. Over time that wood would wear down, become misshapen or break, Morris said. Now that many wippens are made of a composite material and the rate at which they break down has significantly decreased.

Although Cunningham has been in Germantown for some time, occupying Pine Place before the onset of World War II, the site has a history that goes back much further than that. More than 100 years before Cunningham moving to Germantown Avenue, abolitionist and author Louisa May Alcott, who wrote “Little Women,” was born on the site and spent the first year and a half of her life there.

The Alcotts were known for abolitionist views.  Bronson Alcott was a founding member of William Lloyd Garrison’s Anti-Slavery Society and Abigail “Abba” Alcott was an early member of the Female Anti-Slavery Movement. When the couple moved to Germantown in late 1830s, they brought their views with them.

On May 13, 1831, the Alcotts moved into 5425 Germantown Ave., one of the two properties that now make up Cunningham’s store, after living in a boarding house since moving to the area. Bronson, a teacher, opened a school in the home for children between the ages of 3 and 9. Within eight weeks, the school had 10 students.

In October 1831, however, the school’s patron, Reuben Haines, died, which led to difficult times for the Alcotts.

Just over a year later, on Nov. 29, 1832, Louisa May Alcott was born at Pine Place.

This sketch of Pine Place property is believed to show what the property layout was like when the Alcotts lived there. Drawn by Ann LaBorie.

With the Germantown school struggling, Bronson decided to open a new school in the city at 222 S. Eighth St. Meanwhile, Abba, Anna and Louisa stayed behind in Germantown.

The new school didn’t fair any better and the health of Abba began to decline. A doctor recommended moving to a different climate, so on July 9, 1834, the Alcotts moved out of Germantown to Boston, never to return again until Louisa May’s visit to Pine Place in 1882.

Although things didn’t turn out so well in Germantown, it was the site of the first home the Alcotts owned. The ideas Bronson was spreading at his schools were just “ahead of the times,” wrote Judith Callard in a 1996 article in the the Germantown Historical Society’s journal.

Abba Alcott summed up her time in Germantown in a letter written to Jane Haines, the wife of the late Reuben. According to the article, Abba wrote, “The spring has arrived and instructed our departure from Germantown where I have passed two years in many respects delightfully–some moments of fear and distrust but for the most part confident and content. It is a place which will be dear to me from its having been the birthplace of my children and the residence of those near and dear [to] my fondest recollections.”

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