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Alexander Majors House Shows Off Restored Piano

Laura Spencer

The Alexander Majors House, a two-story white antebellum home, is a relic from the 1850's, and still stands at 82nd and State Line. It was built by one of the founders of the Pony Express, and it's tucked next to an office building, just north of Ward Parkway Shopping Center.

Inside the house, there’s historic furniture and fixtures, and also on the property, a blacksmith’s shop, carriages, and a barn – where, for now, there’s a newly restored piano. 

This piano in the Alexander Majors House collection dates to 1870, and belonged to Cora Gladish, a Missouri-born schoolteacher and composer.

"It has a rich history with the Majors House, including its owner Cora Gladish who gave the piano to her dear friend Louisa Johnston who was the great-granddaughter of Alexander Majors, and who really cared for this house and ensured that it was respected and valued and restored," says Anna Marie Tutera, the executive director of the Wornall/Majors House Museums.

On a recent weekday, in the large wood-paneled barn, the museums' honorary music director Dr. Bruce Prince-Joseph rehearsed a song Gladish wrote called Shadows or My Last Dream with vocalist Veronica Caine. He says it was written in memory of her grandfather’s household and farm.

An excerpt from a rehearsal, with Dr. Bruce Prince-Joseph on piano, and Veronica Caine on vocals.

Prince-Joseph has a passion for vintage instruments. An organist, harpsichordist, and pianist, he says a piano like this represented social standing.

"An instrument like that was always in the parlor – and only in the parlor were the most expensive pieces in the house. That’s where they’d show off," says Prince-Joseph. "That would tell everybody everything, because that was the entertainment center of the culture."

He adds, "It’s a joy to play this piano because it’s so finely crafted."

Credit Laura Spencer / KCUR
Jim Upton listens carefully, as Dr. Bruce Prince-Joseph plays the newly restored piano at the Alexander Majors House.

Prince-Joseph also restored the 1859 Steinway grand piano at the John Wornall House decades ago. For the restoration of the Majors House piano, he worked closely with Jim Upton, a cellist and pianist. Upton says it’s what’s called a square, or parlor, or coffin grand piano.

"It basically looks like a big rectangle and it’s very different from what we now know as the modern butterfly grand piano," says Upton. "In terms of the timeline this would have been one of the very late, square grand pianos that they made."

This instrument wasn’t played for decades. And with 11,000 parts, the restoration took about two years, mostly working on Saturdays to replace broken strings and felt, repair broken parts, and regulate the action of the keyboard.  

"It still has thousands of parts in that action and every one of them has to work just right, so that you hit the key and the hammer hits the string and then it bounces back so that the string will sound," says Upton. "And all of the stuff that’s interrelated there took us quite a bit of time to figure out and ultimately get to working correctly."

Executive director Anna Marie Tutera says it fits the museum’s mission to have something in the collection, such as the piano, that’s not just on display – but can be played and used.

"It’s a complete treasure," Tutera says. "Because we are a hands-on historic museum."

She says it gives a modern audience a better understanding of the experience of the mid to late-1800s. And after the public dedication, she says, the piano will return where it belongs: to the parlor of the historic house.

A public demonstration of the restored grand box piano takes place in the barn at the Alexander Majors House, 8201 State Line Rd. Kansas City, Missouri, on Thursday, November 21, at 7 p.m. Dr. Bruce Prince-Joseph will be joined by other musicians, and plans to play songs ranging from Campaign Song for Abraham Lincoln to works by Chopin, Schumann, Schubert, Bach - and Cora Gladish.

Kansas City is known for its style of jazz, influenced by the blues, as the home of Walt Disney’s first animation studio and the headquarters of Hallmark Cards. As one of KCUR’s arts reporters, I want people here to know a wide range of arts and culture stories from across the metropolitan area. I take listeners behind the scenes and introduce them to emerging artists and organizations, as well as keep up with established institutions. Send me an email at lauras@kcur.org or follow me on Twitter @lauraspencer.
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