Jacksonville Center For the Arts Purchase MacMurray Pianos

By Benjamin Cox on September 28, 2020 at 11:03am

Known as the Van Cliburn piano, the 1959 Steinway was long the centerpiece at Annie Merner Chapel

Two of MacMurray College’s cherished musical instruments are staying in Jacksonville. A 6-foot Baldwin L grand piano and the 1950s 9 foot Steinway & Sons concert grand piano that were a part of Annie Merner Chapel have been sold to the Jacksonville Center for the Arts.

The Steinway Piano, known to many as the “Van Cliburn piano,” was selected by the pianist for the college in the 1950s at the height of his popularity. Van Cliburn played the instrument and signed it in New York before it was shipped to the college in 1959. It is the same age as the Steinway currently housed at Rammelkamp Chapel on the Illinois College campus.

Dr. Susan Weller, President of the Jacksonville Center for the Arts Board of Directors, says that current plans are for the piano to be moved to two familiar locations while the MacMurray campus is being auctioned: “We’re on the verge of contracting with Centenary Methodist Church to house the Steinway in their sanctuary. Bless their hearts, they have really rearranged their whole sanctuary to accommodate this big instrument. It’s going to be played, which is important with pianos. It will also be loved, cherished, and taken care of there. The six-foot Baldwin is going to go down the other end of the street to Our Saviour’s. It will be played. Ann Marie Stahel is the parish’s music director, and she recognizes the value of that piano. It will be used every Sunday, and it will also be well taken care of.”

Weller says that the board would eventually have to purchase pianos for the Arts Center. She says that new models of the pianos would range in cost between $85,000 to $100,000 for the Baldwin and approximately $200,000 for the Steinway. She says that the board was able to get a lucrative deal from MacMurray’s Board of Trustees, who voted unanimously to sell to the Center for the Arts: “The reason why we bought these two pianos is that we would have to buy pianos like them in the future, and they would be a lot more expensive as new. These are a part of MacMurray history, so we decided to make the investment now. I have seen the signature of Van Cliburn on that soundboard. This is one of the parts of Jacksonville history, as much as MacMurray history; and it’s one of the treasurers of Jacksonville that not everybody may know about, but we did and moved in and bought them.”

Weller says the next step is to conclude a 3 year process of getting the Jacksonville Center for the Arts built. She says the board is currently paying close attention to MacMurray College’s campus auction in November, particularly one special building: “Actually, we are hoping that both of these pianos can go back to MacMurray if plans work out the way that we would hope. We have our eyes on the Putnam-Springer building, which is the one on the corner of Clay and State. If we could get that building and then build our extension on it for the performing arts area, then we could move both of these pianos back to MacMurray where they certainly belong.”

The Jacksonville Center for the Arts had been designated a parcel of land near downtown Jacksonville near the old Viles Automotive building on the corner of Douglas and Main. In an article published in the Source in December 2019 written by Kristin Jamison of the Jacksonville Regional Economic Development Corporation, the center is expected to generate an economic impact of $11.9 million into the local economy, with a total earnings impact of $5.5 million, creating or supporting a total of 105 jobs.

Weller says they are hoping to add a state-of-the-art performing arts space onto the Putnam Center and help to build Jacksonville’s arts community. The original cost of the project was north of $7 million. Weller says she is glad that two pieces of Jacksonville’s history will get to stay home and be cherished for years to come, and hopefully continued to be used as a part of the arts community in a brand new space very soon.