Web Exclusives: Alumni Spotlight

October 10, 2007:

Chris Acker ’73 and an 1880 Pleyel piano he is restoring. (Courtesy Chris Acker ’73)

PROFILE - Chris Acker ’73
Restoring antique pianos

Chris Acker ’73’s knowledge of pianos borders on encyclopedic. He can tell you the type of piano Beethoven, Liszt, or Schumann played. He can wax rhapsodic over the intricacies of a piano’s interior mechanisms. Even though he cannot play the instrument, pianos are his life.

Acker’s business, PianoGrands, specializes in finding, restoring, and selling antique pianos. He runs the company out of two shops, in Savannah, Ga., and Montrose, Pa., with his wife, Anne, a former computer scientist and a concert harpsichordist and pianist. Their work, which they do themselves along with some part-time help from a piano technician and a refinisher, involves taking a vintage instrument and bringing it back, as closely as possible, to how it was when it was new. They use old or authentic reproduction materials, such as antique ivory for keys and old-growth wood for veneers.

Acker’s route to this unusual career was circuitous. After majoring in geological engineering at Princeton and earning an M.B.A., he worked for an oil company and eventually started a business with a friend who had developed a test for cholesterol.

When in 1999 he found himself the owner of a big house with a cavernous living room and no furniture, he figured a piano was the most efficient way to fill the space. On the Internet he found a broken-down 1873 piano for $5,000, and then spent four months of weekends restoring it under the tutelage of a master restorer. One week before the work was completed, the restorer’s shop went up in flames. The silver lining was the insurance money for the piano, which prompted Acker to quit his job and focus on his newfound passion — antique pianos.

What makes antique pianos so special? Modern pianos, he explains, are designed to be heard in large concert halls, while historic instruments were crafted for more intimate spaces. They have a clearer, more bell-like tone. “We’ve had concert pianists play one of our pianos for the first time and start to cry,” he says. P

By Rhoda Jaffin Murphy ’80

Rhoda Jaffin Murphy ’80 is a freelance writer in Short Hills, N.J.