A $2 million restoration that began in 1994 restored the state-owned Villa Louis in Prairie du Chien to its former glory.
In the parlor, hidden beneath a piano scarf and art objects, was a Steinway grand concert piano with a cracked case, mismatched legs, missing ornamentation and a notably ugly replacement pedal lyre.
"It was looking increasingly shabby as everything around it was being beautified," said Villa Louis site director Michael Douglass.
Soon, it will again look — and sound — like it belongs in an elegant Victorian mansion, which is widely considered the most authentically restored house museum in the nation.
At the moment, the piano is in pieces in the workroom at Farley's House of Pianos in Madison, where a team of five specialists work on it almost full time. They hope to have it done when the museum opens for seasonal tours on May 1.
Before the 9-foot Steinway heads back to Prairie du Chien, though, Tim Farley plans to hold a concert that features both the Villa Louis piano and its "sister" piano concert grand he previously restored and is now for sale at his store for $179,000. Farley refers to the two Steinways as "The Girls." And when they are played side by side, he said, "it will make musical history." He hopes "The Girls" someday make joint appearances with the Madison Symphony Orchestra.
No one knows for sure how the Steinway that Hercules Dousman bought for his family in 1879 wound up in such awful condition. It was presumably pristine when the Dousman family broke up their Italianate home on the Mississippi River in 1913. Its whereabouts from that time to the 1930s, when Dousman's granddaughters gave the estate to the state and pushed to open it as a museum, are unknown.
But there are theories.
Farley thinks someone jumped on it, "and it wasn't Jerry Lee Lewis." Maybe its original legs were destroyed in one of the floods that plagued the area. Some think it may have been loaned to a boys school, where it was abused. Or it was just carelessly stored.
When the piano returned to Villa Louis in 1936, it was restored and played for 50 more years. But in 1985, the piano quit and hasn't been played since. Experts said only an expensive restoration could make it sing again.
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Douglass said Villa Louis' many friends realized the museum's restoration wouldn't really be complete until the rickety concert grand was brought back to life. Bake sales and brat stands raised money and, finally, a major foundation donated much of the rest of the money for the roughly $40,000 needed for the restoration.
In December, Farley and crew brought the piano to Madison, where the restoration will include a new sound board. The deteriorated bridge will be rebuilt and 600 metal pins pressed in, new strings installed and new legs and lyre pedal (copied from the sister) carved. Yellowed ivory keys will be whitened and the ebony keys will be smoothed and treated with tung oil.
For the missing ornamentation on the case, Farley turned to a collection of damaged pianos he buys for parts. Brazilian rosewood used for the original Villa Louis piano's case no longer is available, because the species is endangered. But an old piano ruined in a flood provided rosewood harvested from a nearby spot in Brazil.
The piano also contains chestnut, maple, mahogany, poplar and beech woods.
The finish on the original 600-pound cast iron frame was too deteriorated to restore, so Farley is meticulously mixing pigments to replicate its original gilt.
Farley's enthusiasm for working on the concert grand borders on euphoric. Only about 300 Steinways of this caliber were built and all, in his opinion, eclipse other types of pianos because of their design, craftsmanship and materials.
Farley also admires the marketing savvy exhibited by the Steinway family, who immigrated from Germany and started the company in 1853. They recruited top artists and gave them the use of their elite concert grands.
The folks at Villa Louis share Farley's excitement.
"We are dreaming wildly," Douglass said. "We're thinking of salon concerts, and a whole new avenue of program possibilities is opened.
"Visitors find Villa Louis so compelling because it looks almost exactly like it did when the Dousmans lived here. Now, it will sound like it did back then."