Before middle-class Americans started dropping wads of money on cars, they used their disposable income to buy pianos. A sign of status and culture, a piano was often a family's most expensive and prized possession. By 1890, the United States was the world's largest manufacturer of the instruments, exporting them far and wide.
In Philadelphia, Chestnut Street was the place to go if you wanted a fine keyboard. Before the piano craze peaked in the 1930s, there were 13 stores selling uprights and grands between Sixth and 23rd Streets. The Great Depression did in many of the vendors. The rest flickered out. Today, just a single dealer remains: Jacobs Music, between 17th and 18th Streets.
The narrow, rowhouse-size building stands out on the block like an ivory key amid the ebonies. Undeterred by falling piano sales, Jacobs acquired the building in 1937 and gave it a new, fashionable art deco facade.
The restrained, geometric composition (architect unknown) features a grid of recessed, square windows, bounded by a fluted frame and topped with a crown of three keys. Not only does the arrangement emphasize the building's lean verticality, it also conveys a sense of elegance that we associate with piano music. The brass-trimmed shop windows on the ground floor are perfect for showing off concert grands.
Faced in white carrara marble, Jacobs' building was luxurious design. In that respect, Jacobs was following the example set by other high-end piano stores, like the soaring, neoclassical Cunningham Piano building on Chestnut's 1300 block and, of course, New York's famous Steinway Hall on 57th Street.
Unfortunately, those marble panels were cut a little too thin and, two years ago, pieces began falling off. Jacobs' owner, Chris Rinaldi, took it as a sign it was time to renovate the facade, which had been marred with a clunky awning. But because of the panels' thinness, his consultants, architect Paul Steege and the engineers at Keast & Hood, concluded the marble could not be reused. Instead, they replicated the exact profile of the original design in cast concrete, using a thin band of white metal around the window grid.
In the course of their work, they rediscovered images of the original brass store sign. The elegant, slim typeface now gleams above the door. Bravo!
Jacobs Music is at 1718 Chestnut St.