Rebuilder spotlight: CUNNINGHAM PIANO COMPANY
Tim Oliver and Rich Galassini
CUNNINGHAM PIANO COMPANY began manufacturing pianos in 1891 and, in its time, was one of the largest piano makers in Philadelphia. In Pianos and Their Makers, by Alfred Dolge, Patrick Cunningham's business was described as being "as true to the traditions of honest values in pianos as any the old Quaker City has ever produced." Composer Vincent Persichetti is quoted as having said, "In the beginning, God created a Cunningham player piano," and the Charleston Museum in South Carolina houses the Cunningham piano on which George Gershwin composed Porgy and Bess.
The Cunningham factory ceased production in December 1943, due to the effects of the war effort, but at the end of the war, Louis Cohen, a piano technician for the company, purchased and reopened the business, and actively promoted the Cunningham brand while also turning his focus toward a booming new industry: piano restoration. Cohen's two daughters, Rose Karr and Doris Reber, continued their father's work by dedicating their 45,000-square-foot, four-story facility solely to piano restoration, while transforming a three-story Masonic Temple on the same historic block into a piano showroom. The showroom displays not only the company's restored pianos, but also a selection of fine new pianos from Bösendorfer, Mason & Hamlin, Estonia, Charles R. Walter, Wm. Knabe, and Hailun.
In 2007, the Cohen family sold the company to us, Tim Oliver and Rich Galassini, both musicians with long histories with the company and close associations with the Cohen family. Rich began his career at Cunningham in 1987, after graduating from Temple University with a bachelor's degree in Music Education and Vocal Performance. Tim came to Cunningham in 1997, after earning a bachelor's degree in Piano Performance from Lycoming College, in Williamsport, Pennsylvania, and a successful stint as manager of a music store. As owners, our primary goal has been to turn the piano restoration shop into a complete piano remanufacturing facility capable of upgrading or replacing every worn-out component of the pianos it restores.
Cunningham's philosophy of piano rebuilding places the highest priority on the instrument's performance while retaining as much as possible of its original scale design. This philosophy takes the modern approach of replacing all aged materials with the best available new parts that most resemble the originals. To that end, Cunningham seeks out the technicians, processes, and suppliers best equipped to achieve that goal. The rebuilding of vintage Steinway, Mason & Hamlin, and other famous American grands from the 1870s onward comprises the bulk of Cunningham's piano restoration business.
The restoration facility is divided into three major departments: Belly/Woodworking, Refinishing, and Action/Assembly. Each department has its own manager, all overseen by vice president and factory foreman Kurt Weissman. Joining Cunningham in 1990 and foreman since 2008, Weissman has been a piano rebuilder for 35 years. Raised in the piano rebuilding scene of New York City, Weissman has had a lifetime of exposure to manufacturing techniques used by Steinway & Sons and Mason & Hamlin. His pursuit of knowledge has even led him to the Bösendorfer factory in Vienna, Austria, where he acquired advanced voicing techniques. It is his concepts and tooling inventions that guide Cunningham's restoration business today.