Cunningham Building: Cunningham Piano Company on Piano Row
1312-1314 Chestnut Street
"...Beth tried it, and everyone pronounced it the most remarkable piano ever heard. It had evidently been newly tuned and put in apple-pie order, but, perfect as it was, I think the real charm lay in the happiest of all happy faces which leaned over it, as Beth lovingly touched the beautiful black and white keys and pressed the bright pedals.”
Little did renowned American author Louisa May Alcott know that nearly 60 years after her birth at "Pine Place” on Germantown Avenue in Philadelphia, a piano company would begin its successful journey on the premises. Patrick Cunningham founded his business on the site in 1891 and quickly became one of Philadelphia's most acclaimed piano makers. He expanded his company by adding a showroom to Chestnut Street’s “Piano Row” at his location in the 1920s.
Patrick Cunningham, an Irish immigrant, was a brilliant woodworker and craftsman. His factory in Germantown created grand and acoustic upright pianos, winning awards for design and quality. At one point, Cunningham offered $10,000 to anyone who could create a better piano than his own. Predictably, no one took him up on his deal, so his piano was dubbed the “Matchless Cunningham”. George Gershwin, one of the most esteemed composers of his time, used a Cunningham piano to create the score to his well-known opera, Porgy and Bess. Vincent Persichetti, an American pianist and teacher, reminisced from his childhood: "In the beginning, God created a Cunningham player piano. I was two and played Verdi, Schumann, and Nevin piano rolls, hanging onto the music rack as I tried to reach the pedal mechanism with my feet."
The business was gaining fame, which meant more space was going to be needed, so it opened up a showroom on Chestnut Street in an area considered “Piano Row.” Thirteen piano merchants were part of Piano Row, which extended from 6th to 23rd Street along Chestnut. Cunningham bought 1312 and 1314 Chestnut Street in 1913 with the intention of building a $1 million 12-story warehouse. Nine years later, though, in 1922, the company decided that this new building would be used for sales and offices, which heightened the project to a 15-story, $2 million tower. Described in a 1924 newspaper article as an “architectural oddity,” the building symbolized “the vision of the architect and the public spiritedness of the management.”
Shortly after though, the Great Depression struck in 1929 and rattled businesses around the world. The company had to give up its distinguished building on Chestnut Street. Then World War II began, and in 1943, Cunningham halted production and began assisting in the war effort. After the war, the company put its efforts into piano restoration, which continues to this day.
The Cunningham building on Chestnut was purchased by the Church of Scientology of Pennsylvania in 2007. As for Piano Row, the last company standing is Jacobs Music at 1718 Chestnut Street, which was founded in 1900.
The Cunningham Piano Company still resides in Germantown, Philadelphia, with its factory at 26 East Coulter Street and store at 5427 Germantown Avenue, and other sites in New York and Washington, D.C. The company is appreciated internationally. They sell vintage Steinway, Bosendorfer, and Mason & Hamlin pianos, still managing to bring joy to all who touch the beautiful black and white keys.