Cunningham Pianos Co.’s façade in Germantown gets colorful tune-up

Two down, two to go.

The City of Philadelphia’s Mural Arts Program is in the process of rejuvenating four signs that date back to the 1940s on the Cunningham Piano Company’s restoration facility’s façade.

A pair of signs on the building’s south-facing side has already been restored; the rectangular “Buy Direct From Factory” sign is a detailed reconstruction of the original while the square “Cunningham Piano Co.” sign is an artist’s interpretation.

The two remaining signs, above the Coulter Street entrance, cannot be restored until the city relocates a fuse box currently preventing full access to the façade.

The owner’s pleased

The Cunningham Piano Company project is the fourth in a broader restoration campaign called “Vital Signs.”

A collaboration between Temple Contemporary and the Mural Arts Program, the ongoing effort identifies and restores endangered signage advertising Philadelphia businesses which meet certain criteria.

Robert Blackson, director of Tyler School of Art’s Department of Exhibitions and Public Programs, said the campaign is “a way to re-establish connection with and support long-standing family-owned businesses in the city that are being overlooked in part because of the multitude of shopping choices now available to consumers.”

Loring Building Supply, on Main Street in Manayunk, has been identified as a potential fifth location for the initiative.

“Philadelphia was built by people,” Blackson continued. “Sometimes this fact is easy to forget. But, it’s up to us how we want the urban environment to look and feel. This project, though modest, responds to a concern for that aspect of our experience and has the potential to connect with people’s tactile relationship to their surroundings.”

Company owner Rich Galassini was pleasantly surprised by the offer to undertake the restoration.

“We are thrilled to see the sign work happen,” he said. “In the 1940s, when the signs were made, Germantown Avenue was a major connecting route between Center City and the suburbs. This was before the construction of the expressway.

“Today, the signs no longer serve the same purpose they once did, and Cunningham Piano Company operates as an international destination, but they still function as an important reminder of the company’s history in Germantown and the city of Philadelphia.”

Brad Carney, teaching artist on staff in MAP’s Art Education Department, is overseeing the work. Restoration began in June.

The two signs were completed in July while work on the other pair is expected to continue through the fall and resume in early next year if necessary.

A neighborhood mainstay

The Cunningham Piano Company was founded by Patrick Cunningham in 1891 and began manufacturing pianos out of a facility located near 50th St. and Parkside Ave.

The company survived the Great Depression and Cunningham was succeeded by Louis Cohen.

After changes in the industry and market for finely crafted instruments following WWII, Cohen shifted the business’ focus from manufacturing to restoring fine pianos.

In the late 1940s, the time from which the signs date, Cohen began moving Cunningham Piano Company to the building on Coulter Street. The company soon also took over the building on Germantown Ave. Both buildings date from the 1870s.

Cunningham today

Rich Galassini and Tim Oliver, two long-standing Cunningham employees, offered in 2007 to take control of the business.

Although both men came to the company from backgrounds in music, Galassini worked in sales and Oliver worked in customer service for Cunningham.

Today, the company has 25 full-time employees, 15 of whom work in service. Despite contemplating a move out of town, they still specialize in the servicing and restoring some of the world’s finest and rarest historic pianos.

“Cunningham Piano Company is the only restoration facility of its kind in the greater Philadelphia area,” said Galassini. “It is also one of the oldest restoration facilities in the United States, with clients worldwide.”

And soon, it will be one of the oldest restoration facilities with the freshest painted exterior signage.

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