Left, my co-workers who assisted with the move included James Zillius, David Blanchfield and Patty Silence. Center: the piano portion of the organized piano. Right: deVeaux Riddick and Robert Watkins (seated) who owned the instrument for the previous 50 years, with warehouse owner Scot Boyer.
By John Watson
The return of the combination pipe organ and upright grand piano to Williamsburg seemed a perfect outcome from everyone’s perspective, so negotiations to purchase the 1799 organized piano for our collection were effortless.
The operation to move the instrument back to Williamsburg involved some heavy lifting paired with a delicate touch.
Three conservation colleagues from Colonial Williamsburg assisted with moving the instrument, which had been left in hundreds of pieces for many years.
When the instrument came out of its Richmond warehouse in dozens of boxes and separate pieces, it was our first opportunity to see what survived — and what did not.
The two largest components were the organ wind-chest and the main casework of the piano portion. The large outer case of the organ had been disassembled into stacks of flat panels.
Pulling the pieces out of the warehouse was like the moment when you’ve bought a thousand-piece jigsaw puzzle and poured the pieces out on the table for the first time.
This will be quite a job.
For us, the challenge of getting everything back together was much less of a concern than the condition of the parts as they emerged from storage.
It is ironic that of all the calamities that can befall historic artifacts, one of the most damaging can be past restorations that were overly thorough or heavy-handed.
It is during improper restoration that evidence of original workmanship and early history, often concentrated in the top layer of ancient surfaces, is most vulnerable to being scrubbed or stripped away.
I was thrilled to see that the instrument was almost completely free of any damaging restoration.
It may be a musical derelict, but it is almost pristine as a document of piano and organ building, direct to us from 1799.
That is not to say the instrument had escaped damage and loss.
While the wooden pipes were nearly complete and very well preserved, many of the metal pipes were mangled almost beyond recognition. The mechanical action of the piano had also been completely lost except for the keyboard itself.
Those are some of the challenges we will face in the next couple of years during the conservation process. And we will be writing about them.
In the next post, we will have to make some decisions about what kind of future is in store for this remarkable instrument.
Conservation of the Tucker organized piano is made possible by a gift in memory of N. Beverley Tucker, Jr.