Karen Lewis adored her Steinway Model 0 grand piano, so much so that she refers to it like one would a cherished member of the family. “She’s like a living human person,” described Lewis. “She was born in 1907 and came to me in the 1960s.”
Now, after more than 50 years in Lewis’ family, the musical heirloom has found a new home in the Denair Unified School District.
Lewis and her husband recently downsized from their 2,500-square-foot home to a 1,500-square-foot cottage, where there is no room for the piano, which is almost 6 feet across at its widest point. Neither of their adult children – a son in San Francisco and a daughter in Ann Arbor, Mich. – had a place for the piano. For all its emotional attachment, it was time to find it a new owner.
“To me, the piano is priceless, so I didn’t want to sell her,” Lewis explained. “I wanted to send her somewhere where she could continue to fulfill her purpose. … When I got to thinking about it — when it became very real that we were moving — I landed on this idea.”
Lewis and her husband, Jeffrey, are connected to Denair and Superintendent Terry Metzger through Jeffrey’s work as the CEO of Turlock-based Legacy Health Endowment, which has partnered with the school district on several health programs to benefit students and their families.
“My family thought it would be great. Terry thought it would be great. (Denair music teacher) Fred (Steiner) thought it would be great,” Karen Lewis said. “Everything worked very nicely and easily.”
Lewis hired Hendrickson’s Turlock Music to move the grand piano. Clyde Hendrickson – who has relocated hundreds of pianos in his 50-year career – showed up at Lewis’ home about 10:15 a.m. Sept. 8. By 11 a.m., he had removed the legs, hoisted the 600-pound piano into a dolly, protected it with blankets and rolled it into a truck for the short drive to Denair. By noon, it already was reassembled in the Denair High music room.
“Amazing,” Lewis said. “I think we were all holding our breath to see how she traveled.”
For his part, Hendrickson was impressed by the piano and its condition.
“Steinways are well built,” he said. “They have a superb manufacturing process they use. This was just an exceptional instrument. All the keys were level. They were all original. It had been maintained very well. All the strings were intact. It is a very lively piano. With maintenance and tuning once a year, it should last for many, many years.”
Steiner, who came to Denair this year from Palos Verdes, is a clarinetist by training, but certainly appreciates what quality the Steinway represents.
“This is such an extraordinary instrument,” he said. “Steinway is the cream of the crop. That’s how unbelievable these pianos are. If you are a concert artist, the company will arrange for you to use Steinways in any city for your performance. It’s an unbelievable piece of equipment.”
The piano and matching bench seat are made from mahogany. Other than a few minor scratches on the legs, the piano appears to be in terrific condition. Lewis figures the last time it was played was a year ago when her children were visiting. The last time it was tuned was four years ago, when the Lewises moved from northern Virginia to Turlock.
Still, Steiner wanted an expert to assess the piano. Coincidentally, Jacob Erwin of Erwin’s Music in Modesto was in the area last Friday. He was able to stop by Denair to take a look.
“He said it is in good condition, given its age,” Steiner said. “I would say it’s in wonderful condition, given that it’s 113 years old and it’s been used by a family. It’s been in a home and used by kids and adults and everyone in between.”
Lewis was relieved to hear of the evaluation.
“One of the things Jacob Erwin said, which I loved, is that the only difference from a concert piano and any other piano is that it’s used on a stage,” she said. “We’re not going to worry too much about the outside. She needs to be renovated, but her sound is beautiful. She’s approachable. She’s not intimidating.”
Lewis said her father, Kenneth Judd, bought the piano for her when she was 8 years old in 1965. Though they lived in Portland, Ore., Judd purchased it from a music store in Butte, Mont., where he grew up. Lewis doesn’t know what her father paid, but a quick Internet search shows used Steinway Model 0 pianos selling for $20,000 or more today. A new piano can cost $70,000 or more.
In 1980, Judd sent a letter to the Steinway Music Co. asking about the piano’s history. Based on its serial number, Judd was told it was completed on Dec. 21, 1907, and shipped to Butte on March 14, 1908. The original buyer is unknown, nor is there any information about where the piano was until Judd bought it and had it moved to Oregon more than a half-century later.
“If she could talk, the stories she could tell,” Lewis said.
Lewis recalls her mother playing the piano at their home or her father sitting beside her as she practiced as a little girl. Later, after she and Jeffrey were married and living in Portland, he loved it when she played the piano and sang jazz tunes. Later, after they became parents, both their children grew up enjoying the piano.
Now, after two cross-country moves and being the centerpiece of so many prized family memories, the Steinway has found what Steiner calls its “forever home” in Denair. The timing was perfect, he said. The school’s battered old upright – which Hendrickson hauled off last week – had seen better days.
Metzger – who has worked in schools for more than 30 years – said she never has been in a district that has “received a gift of this magnitude.”
“Our musically inclined students now have a world-class Steinway on which to perform,” she said. “It’s truly amazing.”
Though the COVID pandemic will temporarily prevent any students from playing the piano until in-person classes resume, Steiner expects the instrument to be a popular draw to the music room.
“Students will be playing the piano. That’s the whole point of its existence,” he said. “They can have a nice instrument they can play, whether it’s ‘Twinkle, Twinkle, Little Star’ or a more complicated piece. There will be lots of opportunities. It will become an active instrument.”
Metzger said she and the Lewises already have discussed the need to buy a piano cart and padded cover to protect the piano and create a fund to pay for its upkeep for years in the future.
“Karen and Jeffrey are very thoughtful and generous, and they want to ensure that the gift is not a burden to the district,” she said. “Although the piano looks and sounds wonderful, it will need some restoration and we’ll be collaborating to fundraise within the community to preserve the piano for generations to come.”
Lewis, meanwhile, is thrilled the family treasure is in such good hands.
“I’m joyful and excited about how it’s worked out,” she said. “She’s going to have purpose.”