by Paul R. Spitzzeri
Way back in 2000, the Homestead was contacted by a member of the Steinway family, manufacturers of the famous line of pianos, who had a very interesting question. Recently retired from active involvement as the last of the family who ran the storied company, he took on a project of compiling a list of all Steinway pianos in museums and came across the Homestead and its two examples.
He told us that, if we supplied him the serial number from the instruments, he would provide whatever information he could about them. This included the date of manufacture, date of original sale and the name of the purchaser. It wasn’t much, but it was definitely cool to be able to have something about the origins of these fine pianos, neither of which were original to the site and were acquired during the late 1970s/early 1980s restoration.
The “Model A” grand piano, which has the sound of a larger instrument, but a 6’2″ long was of a medium span, was purchased on 25 February 1980 from Pianos Wholesale, a Los Angeles dealer that has long closed. It was acquired specifically for placement in the beautiful Music Room of La Casa Nueva, a room with a curved ceiling for acoustics, and six sets of French doors leading to a front patio and the West Lawn and adorned with painted glass portraits of famous composers from Beethoven to Wagner.
For years, we worked with Norman Miller, who tuned and cleaned the pair of Steinways. He also, in 1983, did a little research in a piano guide and learned that this instrument was manufactured in 1893. Copies of pages from Pierce’s Piano Atlas show that Steinway pianos with serial numbers between 75000 and 80000 were built that year and ours had a number of 79088 (which also showed that it was built towards the latter part of that year.)
Then, on 2 October 2000, Henry Z. Steinway wrote his letter to the museum, saying that he saw a reference in the newsletter of the American Musical Instrument Society mentioning that we had two Steinway grands. He added that he was “much interested in Steinway pianos in museums and such like public places.” As noted above, he offered, if we sent him the serial numbers, to “have the company check the records and give you any prior information they may have on your pianos.”
I replied immediately and mentioned that we knew the years of manufacture based on the Pierce atlas, but, of course, welcomed any additional information. I noted that the pianos were regularly tuned and played and invited Mr. Steinway, should he happen to be in the Los Angeles area, to visit. He died in 2008 at age 85 and never did come out to see the Homestead and the piano, though he expressed an interest in his letter in doing so.
By the end of the month, I received a letter from a Steinway and Sons customer service representative, who wrote
according to our records, this instrument is listed as a model A grand in mahogany finish. It was manufactured in our New York factory on November 6, 1893 and delivered to Willis James, 40 East 39th St., NYC, NY on May 29, 1894.
With that, the letters were placed in the accession file for the piano and stored away in a cabinet. It never occurred to me, however, to do any research on Willis James until tonight and what I found is, as is so often the case with artifacts in the Homestead’s collection, quite interesting.
Daniel Willis James was born in 1832 in Liverpool, England to Daniel James and Elizabeth Phelps. The elder James was a grocery wholesaler until his marriage to the daughter of Anson Phelps, a former saddlemaker who became a success with Phelps and Peck in exporting cotton from the South to England and importing brass, iron and tin back to the United States.
In 1833, Phelps joined forces with his sons-in-law, including Daniel James and William Dodge, in creating the Phelps, Dodge and Company and the latter pair were sent to Liverpool to run the office there. Daniel Willis, who went by his middle name, remained there until his mother’s death in 1847, at which time Willis went to New York to attend school and work in the family business, which expanded into lumber, manufacturing, railroads, and real estate.
Anson Phelps died in 1853 and Willis owned a 5% share in Phelps, Dodge and Company. The elder James died in 1876 and with the passage of time, Willis and his cousin, William E. Dodge, Jr., became sole partners. In 1880, an opportunity arose to invest in copper mines in Arizona and the firm became wildly successful in that industry, as well as coal mining, and had two railroads in the region to transport these raw materials from their mines. One of the towns in which the firm operated was Clifton, where Walter P. Temple’s brother, Charles, and sister, Lucinda (with her husband, Manuel Zuñiga) lived in the first part of the 20th century.
The general mercantile, business, however, continued even as the emphasis evolved more fully towards copper mining. Willis was involved in many other companies, including other mining firms, several railroads, a clock company, a pair of trust companies, and investment firm and others.
Married in 1854 to Ellen Curtiss, with whom he had a son, Arthur, Willis was also widely known for his charitable and philanthropic endeavors. He lavished a quarter of a million dollars in Madison, New Jersey, west of Newark and where he had a country home. These included a park, library, opera house, and some commercial buildings, the income from which maintained the first two projects.
Willis was conspicuous in understating his giving and supported the Children’s Aid Society, of which he was president; Amherst College; the Metropolitan Museum of Art; the American Museum of Natural History; the National Academy; the American Geographical Society; and many others.
From at least 1875, he maintained a residence in Manhattan in New York City, and the address provided by Steinway and Sons about the original owner of the piano in La Casa Nueva’s Music Room matches that of Willis James, based on other sources, such as New York City directories, this being 40 East 39th Street. Located between Park and Madison avenues, this location is very near the famed library of capitalist J. Pierpont Morgan, the Grand Central Terminal, the Chrysler Building and other Midtown landmarks.
The James residence is long gone, but the posh locale was where the Steinway was delivered at the end of May 1894 and, presumably, remained through at least September 1907. Willis James was vacationing at the Mount Washington Hotel at Bretton Woods, New Hampshire, best known for being the site of a 1944 conference to establish to regulate finance and monetary policy after the inevitable conclusion of the Second World War.
The hotel, completed in 1902 and declared a national historic landmark in 1986, is a grand hostelry somewhat akin to the Hotel Del Monte in Monterey or the Hotel del Coronado near San Diego. James was there for the summer of 1907 and came down with what was described as “a sudden attack of heart disease” early in September.
One day, James was chatting with friends on the piazza, or open area, at the hotel when he fell back in his chair and gasped for breath. He was taken to his suite and a doctor summoned, but the stricken man worsened, though there was a brief recovery, and he died on 13 September at age 75.
The value of his estate was determined to be, after subtracting debts and obligations, $26,000,000, a sum that would likely approach a billion dollars today. Shortly after James’ death, his company went public and was reorganized as the Phelps Dodge Corporation, with many subsidaries underneath it.
Phelps Dodge was notorious for its anti-union stance and aggressive strike breaking in its mining ventures, including a 1917 incident at Bisbee, Arizona and in the 1980s a violent strike erupted at its plant in nearby Morenci. At its peak, with operations in Africa and South America, the conglomerate had over 13,500 employees and maintained its headquarters in Phoenix.
In March 2007, the corporation was acquired for nearly $26 billion by Freeport-McMoRan and the merger established the world’s largest copper company with 25,000 employees. The company had revenue of almost $16.5 billion and assets of over $37 billion in 2017.
How Willis James’ beautiful mahogany Steinway Model A grand piano made its way from New York City to Los Angeles is not known, but its home for nearly 40 years has been La Casa Nueva, where visitors have enjoyed its stately presence as well as its gorgeous sound when played by such talented pianists as Dennis Aguilar, who performs at several Homestead events.
We hope to have the instrument with us for many, many years to come and that it will continue to be admired, visually and aurally, by our guests.