The Well-Tempered Ear

Classical music: Ambitious two-piano concerts on Friday night and Sunday afternoon celebrate the restoration of the historic Steinway 1879 rosewood concert grand piano at the Wisconsin landmark Villa Louis.

June 26, 2012

By Jacob Stockinger

This weekend will see two special concerts — with somewhat different programs — at Farley’s House of Pianos, located at 6522 Seybold Road on Madison’s far west side near West Towne. The concerts celebrate the restoration of a historical 133-year old piano (below, in a photo by Jess Anderson)) to a famous Wisconsin landmark: Villa Louis.

The first concert is Friday, June 29, at 7:30 p.m. (with a pre-concert lecture at 7 p.m.); the second is Sunday afternoon at 4 p.m. and features the same artists plus a pre-concert lecture by restorer Tim Farley (below, working on the piano’s action, in a photo courtesy of Farley’s).

Both will mark the restoration of the historical piano to a Wisconsin Historical Society landmark, the mansion of  Villa Louis (below) in Prairie du Chien.

It is turning out to be  popular event.

Explains Renee Farley: “The June 29 concert sold out early last week. There was an overwhelming response from the public to be part of witnessing the send-off concert of Wisconsin’s greatest historic piano.  This caused a ticket stampede. (The Villa Louis piano belongs to everyone in the state of Wisconsin, being part of the Wisconsin Historical Society.)

Knowing this was a rare opportunity to share some of their favorite pieces with the public on this piano, the artists offered a Sunday afternoon soiree on July 1 at 4 p.m. Tickets can be purchased for the Sunday afternoon concert by calling Farley’s at 608-271-2626.  General admission is $30.

Two different historic restored pianos will be used: the 1879 Steinway concert grand that was used in Villa Louis; and an 1877 Steinway “Centennial” Grand (below) that was also restored by Farley’s and that resides in the company’s main showroom and concert hall, where it is often used for concerts.

The Villa Louis restoration — pictures below were provided by Farley’s — was paid for by donors, with no tax dollars used, according to Farley’s, which is very pleased with how the restoration turned out. In fact, Wisconsin Public Television is documenting the restoration and the concert for broadcast.

The artists performing are duo-pianists Stanislava Varshavski and Diana Shapiro (below), who both received doctorates from the UW-Madison where they studied with Martha Fischer.

The ambitious program is: Stravinsky’s suite from his ballet “Petrouchka” as transcribed by Varshavski-Shapiro and played on the Villa Louis piano; Rachmaninoff’s  Suite No. 1 for Two Pianos (at bottom); Gershwin’s “An American in Paris” (arranged by Varshavski-Shapiro) performed on the Villa Louis piano; and Rachmaninoff’s  Suite No. 2 for Two Pianos.

Tickets include a pre-concert lecture and a post-concert reception.

For more information and tickets, call (608) 271-2626 or visit:

For more about Villa Saint Louis, including many color and black-and-white photographs, visit:

Retired State Historian Jack Holzhueter (below) wrote the following fascinating essay and historical account, which also discusses the historical role of the piano, for the concert:


By Jack Holzhueter

No grand house in America lacked an equally grand piano in the late 19th century, and the stunning 1870 Italianate mansion built by the Dousman family in Prairie du Chien, Wisconsin, was no exception.

It was built to replace an earlier, but still large, red brick house made in 1843. The architect in 1872 was Edward Townsend Mix of Milwaukee. And the client was the son of one of Wisconsin’s earliest millionaires (before a billionaire was even thought possible), Hercules Dousman — a fur trader and speculator in lands in Wisconsin beginning in 1826.

He died in his brick house in 1868, opening the door for his 21-year-old son and namesake, Hercules Louis Dousman II, to do what rich men’s sons often do: spend money on themselves. Louis, as he was called, also acquired a wife with a lineage suitable for a fine, new house, Nina Linn Sturgis of St. Paul, the daughter of a general. After their 1873 marriage, children arrived quickly, five in all by 1883.

Their principal home was in St. Louis, but they spent summers in Prairie du Chien (supposedly a cooler place) and never stinted on their house. In 1876 they visited the centennial exposition in Philadelphia and went on a buying trip to New York, acquiring Tiffany silver and jewelry and probably making arrangements to buy the Steinway Centennial Grand.

Steinway already had become the leading piano manufacturer in America as well as Europe, having employed American ingenuity and bravado to improve upon shortcomings in European pianos that had previously dominated the upper market.

Steinway turned to rosewood for its most elegant models because of its density, nearly black color, and rich, contrasting grain. (A rosewood craze in the late 19th century nearly wiped out the now-rare species. Below is a rosewood tree that has been just felled.)

The Dousmans wanted the best, and they got it. But Prairie du Chien did not.

The piano first went, from 1879 to 1884, to the new art gallery in their St. Louis home. Then in 1883-84, the Dousmans redecorated Villa Louis in the English Arts and Crafts style, into which the Centennial Grand slid nicely.

So from 1885 to the present, with a notable 15-year gap, the piano has dominated the Villa Louis parlor, more than 130 years in the same family, and mostly in the same room.

Those five Dousman children included Judith and Virginia who played — a common story in modest houses as well as mansions. Nina, too, played, and she and Virginia also composed.

In houses large and small, pianos were more than decorative. They provided “live” music before recordings existed; they were an adjunct for parties — which the Dousmans excelled at giving; they were a gathering spot akin to the hearth.

By 1900, the piano was ubiquitous around the country. Somehow, the Dousman Centennial Grand survived upheavals in the family (Louis’s death in 1886; Nina’s disastrous remarriage; the house’s use only as a summer home), occupancy of the house by a boys’ school after 1913, and removal to Campion academy (a Roman Catholic boys schools in Prairie du Chien) from 1920 to 1935. That arrangement lasted until the Depression.

Then in 1934 the house became a museum and the piano was restored to its place of prominence. First the city owned the house, and since 1952 the Wisconsin Historical Society has owned it.

Despite lack of maintenance, the instrument remained playable. Guides in the 1950s invited qualified performers to play; others in the tour groups would sing along—not unlike the situation during the Dousmans’ house parties of the late 1800s. Hands off the antiques! But hands on the piano, which brought the Villa’s rooms and tours to life. Soon that deferred maintenance took its toll and the piano fell silent; only words accompanied tours.

But now, miraculously, the piano has had its voice restored. Now it can be heard in something even more beautiful than its original glory, courtesy of modern materials and restoration techniques. And its dingy finish has been restored to its original luster—dark chocolate with caramel streaks (below).

May the Villa Louis Steinway Centennial Grand continue to make the mansion a home.

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