One of the Balboa Park Conservancy’s primary missions is to preserve the park and its many treasures for future generations. For every high-profile project that grabs the spotlight, like the successful activation of the Plaza de Panama or the restoration of the historic Botanical Building, there’s another worthwhile project flying under the radar. One important example is the cleaning and repair work recently completed on a historic Steinway Model O piano, currently holding court on the House of Hospitality’s Ballroom stage.
Built in 1917, the House of Hospitality’s Model O is celebrating its 100-year anniversary this year. The Model O was produced and marketed by Steinway & Sons as a “miniature grand” during the first quarter of the 20th century. Though Steinway ceased production of the Model O in 1924, the model was put back in production in 2006 following an 80-year hiatus. With the current resurgence of interest in the Model O, the early models are highly desirable and considered deserving of restoration and repair.
What makes the House of Hospitality’s Model O especially unique and worthy of rehabilitation, according to piano technician Jim Boydston, is that it once functioned as a high-end player piano. Special features of the player piano components allowed it to change tempo and dynamics, replicating the sound of a live performance. Originally, the piano would have been full of machinery and powered by a giant DC electric motor weighing as much as 80 pounds. This piano’s double legs, needed to carry the extra weight, indicate that it was likely designed for this purpose.
At some point in the instrument’s history, the player piano apparatus was removed and the exterior painted an antique white, covering its original mahogany finish. Boydston speculates that this may have happened around 1930, with the advent of the jazz age. This was also the likely timeframe when the piano made its way into the possession of the House of Hospitality, in time for the California Pacific International Exposition of 1935.
Prior to his repair work, Boydston told us, the piano was essentially unplayable, though its sound quality was still good. A string was missing, many of the hammers no longer swung freely, and the una corda pedal wasn’t working. To fix the latter, Boydston consulted with his “brain trust” and ended up fabricating a special part because “there is no part to fix this.” This is just one example of the degree of creativity that goes into repairing an old piano like this one. Though the technology hasn’t changed in 150 years, “no two pianos are alike, even if they come in succession from the same production line”—particularly in this instance, given the piano’s conversion from a player piano.
Thankfully San Diego’s mild climate helped preserve the overall quality of the piano’s wood, so no major repairs or replacements, such as to the soundboard, were required. Boydston did, however, in addition to the work described above, perform a thorough cleaning inside and out, resurface all the hammers, replace all the original felt and other worn and damaged pieces, and level all the keys.
The House of Hospitality’s Steinway now plays very smoothly, producing the beautiful full rich sound that the early 20th-century Model O is known for.