Perhaps the best-known example of the ‘gold’ piano is the one that was presented to the White House by Steinway & Sons in 1903. According to the Steinway website, it was the 100,000th Steinway piano produced, and was designed specifically for President Theodore Roosevelt to go in the East Room of the White House, which had the year before been given a grand Beaux-Arts makeover by Charles McKim of McKim, Mead & White.
The concert grand is covered in gold leaf and elaborately carved in the empire style, with heavy eagles (American rather than French Imperial) adorning the legs and a combination of neoclassical and American national imagery throughout. On the inside of the lid is a painting by Thomas Wilmer Dewing depicting America receiving the nine muses: Calliope, Clio, Erato, Euterpe, Urania, Thalia, Polyhymnia, Melpomene, and Terpsichore.
Located in the East Room, one of the principal public audience chambers in the Executive Mansion, the piano was the center of famous White House entertainments, during which it was played by great names from Busoni to Rachmaninoff, until it was replaced by another Steinway concert grand in 1938. It is now in the collection of the Smithsonian Institution.
As noted in the previous post, art case pianos were often (if not always) designed with specific rooms in mind; they were, in other words, part of a deliberate decorative ensemble. (According to Mary Gay Humphreys: ‘the room prescribes the piano.') In the case of the East Room, this can be clearly observed in the hand-colored photograph above: the gold of the piano matches the gilding on the mirror and other decorative surfaces and fixtures in the room, as well as the rich gold of the damask curtains and upholstery, and the style of the ornamentation is consistent with that of the room as a whole. In this way the piano may be seen as a piece of furniture, one of the 'movables' in a room, whose 'outward semblance' may enhance the design of the room but is always subservient to it.
In a decorative sense, this is significant in that it indicates that the pianos were regarded as more than just musical instruments, i.e. that not just any piano would suffice. In a more Goffmanian sense, it also suggests that their usage was tied to a greater framework of decorative and social symbolism.
In the case of the White House ‘gold Steinway’, the allusion to American cultural and political strength is plain, and would not have been lost on its audiences. Once the focal point of formal state entertainments, the piano is outfitted in what must have been seen as a style befitting a president (and first lady) whose administration saw America take a leading role on the international economic and cultural stage. It was, in other words, a part of the decorative canon created by Gilded Age Society to suit its own spectacular vision of (and for) itself. (Though, as I will demonstrate in Pt. III, this interpretation can be applied to all Gilded Age mansions and their decoration, it is perhaps most exaggerated in the Executive Mansion, the highly symbolic nature of which is underlined by the many renovations it underwent under its respective occupants, each carefully orchestrated to express some new sense of ownership and national identity.)
Though it has received a fair amount of attention due to its national significance, the White House Steinway was by no means the only, nor perhaps even the most splendid art case to be found among the private entertainment spaces of the very rich. Pt. III will examine the cases of a few lesser known, but no less prominent, examples in need of research.
Top: A corner of the East Room, White House, hand-colored photographic print, ca. 1904 (Library of Congress).
'162 Facts About Steinway & Sons and the Pianos They Build', Steinway & Sons (2015), steinwaypianos.com
Humphreys, Mary Gay, 'Elaborate Piano Cases.' The Musical Courier, 19.1 (1889; original print source unknown), 37
'PRESIDENT TO CHOOSE NEW DRAPERIES IN RED: Golden Piano Also Favored in East Room--Earlier Roosevelt Upset This Original Plan', The New York Times, 3 February 1937, p. 25
'Treasures of the White House: Steinway Grand Piano', White House Historical Association, whitehousehistory.org
'White House Tour: The East Room', White House Historical Association, whitehousehistory.org