A piano, played or not, was part of a home Ivories: Two makers of these musical instruments are gone, but a tribute to one of them has been designed into the new stadium's landscaping.

August 22, 1998|By JACQUES KELLY

WHEN I SAW that part of the landscaping at the new Ravens' stadium includes a grand piano rendered in grass and cement, I couldn't help but think of the huge old piano that had sat in the room at the bottom of our stairs.

Never once did I hear any beautiful music issue from my family's big upright. It was nonetheless revered as part of the formal downstairs furnishings -- as much a part of a proper Baltimore home as a television, radio, CD or computer would be today.

The reason the Ravens' home has a piano is a reference to the huge Knabe piano manufacturing plant that once stood near South Eutaw Street. It was a long, fairly narrow brick building, with the requisite cast-iron interior columns and massive wood beams needed to support those heavy musical instruments.

The Knabe piano of the 1880s was a prize-winning, costly piano, one of the toniest products the workers of this city ever made.

Its rival here was the Stieff (those Germans loved their music) -- also made here in an East Baltimore factory at Lanvale and Aiken streets.

We were a Stieff family, but don't ask me to recite the differences of the Knabe vs. the Stieff. They were both big, heavy pianos, with massive, ornate mahogany cases. The thing I remember best was the piano stool. Its claw feet held glass spheres and you could get the seat to spin very fast.

My mother's sheet music inventory, a 1920s collection that included "Dark Eyes" and "The Stein Song" (crooner Rudy Vallee was on the cover of this hit), sat nearby and not much used.

My family was not particularly musical, although my father still likes to pick out the theme from "Around the World in Eighty Days" whenever he gets near 88 keys.

My sister Ellen took to guitar in the 1960s -- years after the fashion for having an upright piano was withering. Since we rarely got rid of anything, the piano movers arrived one day and took the monster apart. They didn't get the job done any too quickly and left the sounding board on the front porch overnight. Some snooping neighbors thought the thing with all the strings attached was my electric train layout.

The Stieff then was reassembled in the basement club room, where it grew ever more out of tune, but supported a Sylvania television set very well during the era of Lawrence Welk, Ed Sullivan and Pinbusters.

Knabe and Stieff -- once premier local products proudly displayed in local parlors and music rooms -- are scarcely known today.

The rooftop cupola atop the Knabe building was preserved and sent to the Museum of Industry on Key Highway. The Stieff factory did not fare as well.

It wasn't quite as large as the Knabe compound, but it was still big. Its building profile was a part of the eastern city skyline that I observed at a distance from my third-floor back room window. From where I lived on Guilford Avenue, the Stieff factory looked as if it were a neighbor to the American Brewery on Gay Street.

The Stieff factory was set afire in the Martin Luther King riots of 1968 and burned in a scary and spectacular manner.

I watched that fire the Saturday night the riot started. I don't think the building disappeared completely, for a few years later, it caught fire again.

This time I watched the blaze from the roof of the old News American, a newspaper that's gone the way of the Knabe and Stieff piano.

Pub Date: 8/22/98

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