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Square grand piano donated to JT museum

Published July 18. 2013 05:04PM

A vintage square grand piano has been donated to a Jim Thorpe historian, and will be available for view during the annual Olde Mauch Chunk open house tours and by appointment.

The circa 1884 Behning Piano Company product had been in the Rehrig family's Mahoning Valley summer home since its construction during the late 1920s. The home is currently for sale, and Christine Rehrig Kuruna and David Rehrig are disposing of the contents.

When they came upon the square grand piano, Kuruna suggested that the antique instrument be donated to a museum. She contacted the Mauch Chunk Museum in Jim Thorpe and spoke with its president, John Drury.

Drury is in the process of renovating a portion of a former Millionaire's Row home at 55 Broadway in Jim Thorpe. He had previously renovated the upper floors as an annex to his family's hotel property, The Inn at Jim Thorpe. He is renovating the ground floor to be a combination living quarters and a museumlike display space.

The Behning Square Grand Piano measures seven feet wide by three and a half feet deep, and has an estimated weight of 600 pounds. With its rectangular shape and enormous lion's foot legs, it more strongly resembles a piece of furniture than a musical instrument.

This is not unusual for a square grand piano which, because of its shape, was designed as a piano that would fit into a smaller living room, and so was a compromise as a musical instrument. In comparison to a conventional piano, it had a stiffer action, reduced projection, and a sound somewhere between a harpsichord and a piano.

Kuruna and Rehrig have known the piano for their entire lives, over 60 years.

"My cousin and I played simple stuff like 'Heart and Soul' and 'Chopsticks'," Rehrig said.

The square piano was the love of their great-grandmother, Iva Barbara Rehrig. Her husband, Charles A. Rehrig, was the successful operator of the Lehighton Transit Company. During the affluent days leading up to the Great Depression, Charles bought Iva the Behning Square Grand Piano.

The piano became the love of her life. Kuruna, as a young child, remembers sitting besides her great-grandmother, listening to her play and singing hymns together. Their favorite was "Onward Christian Soldiers."

The first square grand piano was built about 1760 in London by Johannes Zumpe. The early square pianos suffered from a weak tone and could not compare with true grand pianos. Many American piano companies produced beautifully carved square grands including, Behning, Chickering, Knabe, Steinway and Mathushek. In the 1800s, the square piano was the most popular design in America.

Because of their design they were very difficult to tune or maintain, and most tuners outright refused to work on them. Because they lacked power, in the early 20th century they began to be replaced by the grand and upright piano designs. Square grand pianos were never well received by musicians, and have been relegated to the classification of a decor item.

The Behning Piano Company was established by Henry Behning in 1861 in New York. In 1881, Behning took his son, Henry Jr., into partnership, changing the name of the firm to Behning & Son. In 1932, the firm was sold to Kohler & Campbell, who continued to build pianos under the Behning name until the middle 1950s.

Kuruna is thrilled that the square piano has found a good home.

"My grandmother and I loved it dearly," she said.

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