The Steinway Hunter

Burned Out in Buffalo

Robert Friedman with Ronnie Rosenberg-Friedman (Fall 2020)

[The following chapter is reprinted from The Steinway Hunter, a memoir by Robert Friedman and his wife Ronnie, recounting Mr. Friedman’s 40-year career searching all over the U.S. for old Steinway grands in need of rescue, restoration, and new homes.]

The Steinway Hunter

As the twilight of an early winter’s evening was settling in, I received a call from the owner of a demolition company in Buffalo, NY. The man’s voice sounded old and tough. He told me of an 1880s stone church that had burned in a wicked fire. The only things that were left standing were the stone foundation, the outer stone walls, a few broken stained-glass windows, a few caved-in sections of floor, and in the basement, a black Victorian Steinway grand piano.

First, he asked me if I was interested. I asked him the condition of the piano, and he told me all that was left was the outer rim, the plate, or harp, some of the keys, and that it was still standing on its legs. The rest of the piano had burned. No top, no music rack or desk, and no key cover.

I wasn’t sure what to expect, but I figured that if I was to get this piano, I’d better speak up. I made him an offer sight unseen, and he accepted quickly. He firmly told me that if I did not haul it out of the church by sunset the very next day, he was going to crush it along with the remains of the church at sunrise the following day. He had a deadline that needed to be kept.

Buffalo was a six-hour drive from my home in Poughkeepsie, New York. If I was to save this Steinway, I needed to be in the truck at dawn the next morning. If I didn’t go, the Steinway was doomed. However, this piano sounded like one I could buy low and either restore myself or sell to someone who could. The only way I would know, was to see it.

I was on the road by 7 am. The temperature was nearly 40 when I left, so I dressed in a t-shirt, sweats, and a lightweight windbreaker. I figured I’d be ok, since I’d be driving in a heated truck. I planned to load quickly and return the same day.

Since the speed limit was 55 mph, it was a long, slow drive. It was also a dark, dreary, damp day. After almost six hours of driving with a few stops for gas and food, as the sun was just starting to set, I finally reached my destination.

I got out of my truck and stood in front of the skeleton of a giant old three-story stone church.

There I met the owner of the demolition company and his crew of 3 men. He explained to me that we didn’t have much time to load the piano out of the church. The sun would be setting soon, and there was no electricity. He did have flashlights, but that wasn’t much light to guide me.

He walked me into what was left of the structure. I was amazed that the outside stone walls were still standing, along with a few badly damaged stained-glass windows. The floors were mostly gone. The only thing that was still inside, standing on its legs in the basement, was the Steinway grand.

Piano sketch

He lowered me down to the basement with a large rope tied to his truck’s rear bumper so I could inspect the piano. There, I stood in a few inches of ice-cold water, with an ebony 1880’s model A1, 6’ 2” Victorian grand piano with fireplug designed legs, so named since they resembled a fire hydrant. It had barely made it through the fire that had destroyed everything else around it.

The A1 was the flagship piano that all Steinways from that day forward were modeled after. The designs that were first used in this piano were the duplex scale for stringing, as well as the tubular action frame that was used to hold all the moving parts that controlled the hammers, which struck the strings to create the sound.

I made the deal with him as previously agreed, and he offered to help me haul the piano out. He pulled me back up with the rope, and I went to my truck to get my piano skid, straps, blankets, and tools. Back inside, again he lowered me to the basement, along with my moving equipment.

There was no roof on the church, no floors, no top on the piano, and no soundboard because it all had burned. I was lying under the piano unscrewing the legs and pedals, on my back in the icy water, regretting that I hadn’t prepared better, or dressed more appropriately. I looked up through the piano, past the first floor, past the second and third floor, and out through the roof at the twilight sky, terrified that at any moment, the skeleton of the building could collapse and trap me underneath this piano. The stars twinkled, as light snow fell into my eyes.

My shirt and pants were soaking wet, and I was freezing cold; but in my complete exhilaration I realized that it was my fate to be there, and to be the one who saved the Steinway. I packed up the piano, on its side, on a moving skid, wrapped it with blankets, and the demo crew helped me hoist it up to the first floor. They helped me load it into my truck, we all shook hands, and away I drove, cold, wet and completely satisfied.

I cranked up the heat all the way and drove the six-plus hours home.

Late in the afternoon the next day, exhausted from the night before, I drove the piano to my shop. My helper and I took it out of the truck and did our best to set it up in a standing position. Now, in better light, I could really examine the piano. In its silence, unable to be played, it seemed to yearn to survive. I was told that the piano was in that church from the time it was new. I could only imagine some of the rousing hymns that were performed on this piano. I made the decision to restore it to its original glory, but first it had to be taken apart.

At the time, I was working with a few Steinway restoration experts that travelled up from New York City on weekends to my shop in Kingston, NY. They told me that considering the piano’s horrible condition, it would take a lot of work to restore, and would be very costly. I was willing to do and spend what I needed to, for this piano to have life again.

The challenge was on. Out came the keyboard, off went the strings that hadn’t popped off by themselves from the heat of the fire. The piano still held the scent from the fire that ravaged it. I removed the bent and badly burned damper heads, the felt wedges that would stop the strings from resonating.

The piano was ready to be shipped to a well-known restoration facility in Astoria, Queens. It was manufactured in Astoria Queens, and just a little over 100 years later, it was returned to a restoration shop in Astoria. There it was restored by a man and his son, who for many years had worked at the Steinway factory. There, it was to have all the missing parts replaced and the remaining case parts repaired, a new top made, the cabinet refinished in black satin lacquer, and a new soundboard, pin block and strings installed.

Once it was received by the restoration shop, I received a call from the owner. He told me that it was, by far, in the worst shape of any Steinway he had ever seen. He also couldn’t assure me that after the work was complete, that the piano would have the correct tone and sustain it should have. Since the wooden rim had been so badly dried out from the fire, it might not be able to be sealed properly once he stripped off the remaining lacquer. I was committed to having the piano restored, since I had developed a special connection to it, so I gave him the go-ahead to do the work and I would take responsibility for the outcome.

During the seven-month wait for the piano to be completed, I had more than enough time to restore the keyboard and hammer action. I ordered a new set of high-quality, off-white key-tops. Most of the ivory which had covered the keys from the time it was manufactured was cracked and chipped, if not missing. I enjoyed re-covering the keys. It was the one procedure involved in piano restoration that I trained myself to do in my early years, while restoring mostly off-brand pianos. I did this work by hand, using a one-edge blade and a file. Most of the other procedures involved in piano restoration, I’d learned from the old masters, but this I had taught myself.

The first time I attempted to pull off an old set of badly damaged ivory keys, I paid dearly. It was in the late 1970’s during an electrical blackout. It was nearing dusk, so I had to light several candles to give me light, but not enough. I cut my hands many times. By the time I had removed all of the old ivory, the wooden keys were bloodstained, and the candles nearly burned out, but the keys were ready to be re-covered. It wasn’t a surprise to most people who knew me then, to see my hands covered with cuts and band-aids. Today, there are machines that do this work, but some of us still prefer to do it by hand. I prefer hand tools over power tools. To me, it’s much more satisfying to hold the key in your hand, as you feel your way to the finished product, rather than need to depend on an automated device. I am a purist when it comes to that type of work.

Shortly into the seventh month of the restoration, I received a call from the shop with the news that the piano was ready. I drove to Queens to inspect it. The 1880’s Steinway had turned out better than I had hoped.

Standing proud, it now looked almost new. It had a new lid, keyboard cover, music rack and desk, completely refinished in satin black, with a new soundboard, tuning pin block and strings. The Steinway was ready to be brought back to my shop to complete the assembly.

Once back in my shop, the restored keyboard and hammer action were placed into the piano. After more than three weeks of stretching the strings to bring it up to concert pitch, the piano was finely tuned, producing the rich, lush tone that Steinways are famous for. It was ready to play. My staff and I rolled it from our work area into the showroom.

I advertised the piano for sale in the New York Times. I priced it much lower than any of the other Steinways for sale. If a serious piano buyer was to travel from NYC, approximately an hour and a half to my shop, the price needed to be enticing enough to get their attention, and it did. I received many calls, but one woman in particular wanted to bring her teenage daughter to play it as soon as possible. She had been playing on a small electric keyboard and needed to upgrade to a real piano. If her daughter liked it, she would buy it for her. I went into my showroom and tuned it, hoping this would be the last tuning while in my care. I had saved this Steinway on the night before it was to be buried within the remains of the building where it was last played. It was time for the resurrected instrument to go into the hands of its next owner.

The woman and her daughter pulled up to my shop around noon the next day. I greeted them and led them to the piano.

“Oh, it’s beautiful,” the mother exclaimed when she first saw the piano.

The daughter questioned, “May I play it?”

I replied, “Of course. Please do.”

The girl sat down to the piano and began to play. She played her favorite classical pieces, beginning with Beethoven’s “Fur Elise,” and continuing with his “Moonlight Sonata.” Her mother was smiling, seeing her daughter enjoying the rich tones. The woman asked a few questions about the restoration process. I explained to her all the work that had been done on the piano. Since it had been completely rebuilt, and was magnificent in every way, I didn’t feel that it was necessary to tell her how I had acquired the piano or of its history. I would have told her if she’d asked, but she didn’t.

Her daughter liked the piano and wanted it. Although my asking price was very fair, she asked for a better deal. I wasn’t going to let it go too much lower. I’d invested so much time and money into restoring this Steinway, that I’d almost lost track of the real numbers. I was very close to break-even when I made her one last offer, and she accepted it. We made a plan for payment and delivery, and they left.

I walked over to the piano, stared at the keyboard and played a few notes. I reminisced about the day that I’d first seen this piano and marveled about how far it had come. I imagined the days when this piano was the instrument that filled the church with beautiful music; that had accompanied hymns for the many people who had enjoyed it for over a century. This piano, with my assistance, found its way back to the place of its birth, to be restored by the students of the master craftsmen who had originally created it. It was now going into the hands of a young woman who would cherish it.

Robert Friedman

Robert Friedman has spent his entire 40-year professional career searching for Steinway grand pianos that have been loved and cared for over their many years of ownership. With the help of the thousands of people in his network, these musical treasures have found their place in the hearts of new owners worldwide. Robert lives with his wife, Ronnie, in the Hudson Valley area of New York. When he’s not on the hunt for pianos, Robert enjoys spending time with his family, traveling, and playing guitars, drums, and pianos. He can be contacted at [email protected]. The book can be purchased at https://thesteinwayhunter.com/shop.html.

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