Spokane piano restorer Ken Eschete touches the keys to history, from Lincoln’s grand piano to Eleanor Roosevelt’s Steinway
Eleanor Roosevelt’s Steinway grand piano returned home on June 4 after a family donated it to the First Lady’s historic collection. To restore his 1936 instrument, National Park Service curators brought in an expert to do this work in July – Ken Eschete of Spokane.
Known in the United States for his work as a piano technician and conservationist, Eschete has touched many famous pianos, including Prince Albert’s 1854 Erard concert grand piano at the Smithsonian which he restored to be playable again.
Eschete previously assessed the condition of the circa 1860 great Schomacker that Mary Lincoln commissioned for the White House when a museum asked her to stabilize it for an exhibition. With a curator nearby, he tuned the Franklin D. Roosevelt grand piano in the Historic Springwood Estate.
In 2001, Eschete also carried out the restoration of the large, richly decorated Steinway of the Vanderbilt Mansion. He restored the Blüthner grand piano from the Washington State Capitol in 2018, which is now used for concerts in the Governor’s Reception Hall. Others are the Smithsonian’s Chickering grand piano and a piano for a Will Rogers museum.
“I was really drawn to the point of view of conservation,” said Eschete, 72, who received an early scholarship to study museum techniques at the Smithsonian. In his musical instruments division, he learned to use organic chemistry methods with natural remedies to restore and preserve antiques without altering them.
To revive pianos with aging parts, restoration approaches differ, he said.
“There’s the restoration where you take an old instrument and you completely strip the finish and replace all the parts and make it look like new,” he said. “Then there is another approach, conservation, in which you respect the integrity of the instrument and try to change as little as possible.
“Everything you do is scientifically sound and hopefully reversible in some way so that whatever you do can be taken apart in the future if necessary.”
He will travel to Hyde Park, New York, to work on the Roosevelt Steinway. It has loose tuning pins, and it will need to be tuned in order for it to be playable. He will focus on creating a way to deal with future wear and tear.
Curators expect the instrument to be played around the history of social events hosted by Eleanor and President Roosevelt based on detailed recordings of the food served and the music provided.
Before the piano is on display at Eleanor Roosevelt’s Chalet Val-Kill, the Steinway will be on display next year at the Wallace Center of the FDR Presidential Library in Hyde Park to showcase the instrument as well as stories, photos. and history. But he will return to Val-Kill, where Eleanor often stayed during her husband’s presidency, lived after his death, and entertained dignitaries.
“We have to do everything we can to preserve all the original materials,” Eschete said. “The wear and tear of the piano is concentrated in the hammer that strikes the strings. We will remove the original parts as they can be removed with a screw.
“We’ll put them in order in acid-free boxes and store them, so at some point if we wanted to reassemble all the original parts, we could. “
For the interior, new parts have been specially manufactured that he will install as a replacement to absorb the use of the exhibition shows. “I leave with a whole panoply of tools. This is something I should be able to do in about five days.
During his career, Eschete invented two treatments to bring old piano pieces back to life. In a three-room workshop in the basement of his home north of Spokane, Eschete has everything from carpentry tools to felt ordered from Boston to do conservation work. In the meantime, he tuned and repaired regional pianos.
A back door at street level is large enough for a grand piano to be rolled upright. Upstairs, Eschete has his own antiques – a 1923 Steinway and a square piano made in the 1790s with the markings of Broadwood and Son of London.
He and his wife Christine moved here eight years ago after an invitation from piano technician and friend in Spokane, Rose Fanger. They wanted to move after working in New Zealand.
Eschete is originally from New Orleans; his wife is from San Francisco. They met in Chicago, where Eschete worked for 13 years as director of keyboard maintenance at Northwestern University.
Eschete started his career on a different musical path with another instrument. During the Vietnam War, he was accepted as a trumpeter in the Military Academy Band based at West Point. Later, visiting a former band member in Boston, he stopped by to see this friend’s class in the North Bennet Street School Piano Technology Program.
“I had no interest in pianos,” Eschete said. “I was interested in mechanical stuff and I could fix everything. I had a dad who was a general-purpose mechanic, so I grew up with not a silver spoon in my mouth, but a 9/16 wrench in my mouth.
That day at school, Eschete saw people puzzled over a problem with a piano. “I told them what the solution was,” he said. He eventually applied and the leaders remembered his abilities. Instructor Bill Garlick brought his old pianos for students to practice their skills in the mid-1970s.
Eschete also met Fanger, another student and former secretary of the Smithsonian’s musical instruments division. She helped Eschete meet some curators. After completing this scholarship during his graduate studies, he had gained some technical knowledge from Bennet, and then conservation science hooked him.
“I loved finding out what kind of wood it was by pulling out a microscope and looking at the cell structure,” he said. “I loved organic chemistry, which I hated in college, but loved when they gave me an app.”
It can mean mixing two chemicals together to turn a black stain on oak into a translucent one. “There are many practical applications for organic chemistry, which is used a lot in museum conservation work,” he said.
In fact, he is known for transplanting conservation science into piano harmonization. The job often means patches for felted wool hammers that range in size from tiny to large. Each strikes internal strings of different lengths to create a different type of sound, “depending on how soft or hard the felt is,” he said.
“The problem we always have is that sometimes the hammer is too soft; we are not getting enough sound. One of the options I invented is borrowed from museum conservation work.
He created a method for using acrylic beads dissolved in 190 degree grain alcohol. The liquid then has small plastic molecules floating inside. When applied to the felt and the solvent evaporates, tiny pieces of plastic molecules revert to a solid form to give structure to the inside of the felt.
Eschete experimented with the method for about 15 years while being encouraged to keep it a trade secret, but the news got out. Then two years ago, he published his method in a specialized journal which has since become international.
Its other breakthrough tackles problems with tuning pin boards. The holes were too small for a pin causing friction and adjustment issues. And often the wood block that holds the adjustment pins will develop large cracks, so the adjustment pins won’t stick around.
“I invented a way to fix them on the spot using a specialized epoxy that mixes together like water,” he said. “This is a commercial product that is not designed for this purpose, and it is still museum curatorial work.
“When it goes from a liquid to a solid, it’s inside and also creates a structure. I found out that if I removed the adjusting pins and flooded the holes with this very watery epoxy then I could re-drill the hole.
Sometimes he can put the original tuning pins back and reuse the original strings. “When you look at it, you don’t see any difference, but the big difference is that when you try to tune it, it would hold a tune.”
Of all the famous pieces he has polished, one stands out. “I think it would be the FDR piano,” Eschete said. The Vanderbilt piano was the most expensive instrument.
“But Cornelius Vanderbilt is not someone I admire,” he said. “When I had the chance to walk into the living room of the FDR mansion wearing white gloves with the curator moving all the photos on the piano – all the famous people who had been at the FDR mansion – I was really moved to be able to look at this instrument and tune it.
He says the FDR piano and now Eleanor’s grand piano are “national treasures”. “Due to association with someone who is incredibly famous or culturally significant, like FDR was, the value of that item changes. It turns into something that is considered a cultural good or a cultural treasure even though there is nothing extraordinary about it.
“There was nothing extraordinary about Lincoln’s piano either. It is this transcendence from an ordinary manufactured object that, due to its association with a person so dear to society, and the history of that person, a decision is made to preserve this object exactly as it is. without modifying it, so that it can be preserved not only for this life, but for the lives and lives that follow.