Collections Pick: The 143 Pianos We Lost to the 2013 Flood

June 10, 2020

Flood waters on 11 Avenue SE in front of Customs House. Photo credit: Jason Tawkin.

 By Jesse Moffatt

Growing up in Calgary, we lived near the Glenmore Reservoir and I spent my summers floating down the Elbow River, like many others. I never imagined the river that brought so much joy would cause so much destruction years later. June marks the anniversary of the 2013 Alberta Floods and the loss we suffered to the National Music Centre Collections. Below is a reflection of the year that we lost 143 pianos.

In 2013 our offices, collections, and exhibitions resided within a historic sandstone and brick building built in 1906. The building was originally Calgary’s first Customs house. The majority of the collection was stored and exhibited on the second floor of the building, however approximately 10 percent or 200 musical instruments, support documents, and memorabilia were stored in the building’s basement due to space limitations.

In the early morning of June 21, 2013, my colleague, Chad Saunders, and I arrived at the Customs House less than 12 hours after the City of Calgary declared a State of Emergency. The fear was that both the Bow and Elbow Rivers that pass through the city were going to crest their banks.

Upon arrival, we found the main door open and water surrounding the entire east side of the building, 1 Street SE was a river of water. Upon our initial inspection of the interior of the building there was no water. Unfortunately, less than 45 minutes later, floodwaters rapidly entered the basement through the electrical room conduit. Like water out of a fire hose, water levels in the basement began to rise. Despite our efforts in the frigid, dark basement, the situation became too dangerous to keep pumping water and moving small items to higher ground. Despite being soaking wet and cold, a small team of staff were reluctant to leave. Even hours later, staff lobbied me to go back later that evening for fear of what was happening and wanting to save objects. We returned to the building early Saturday morning only to find that all of our efforts had failed, the water won. The entire basement had been flooded and the water was too deep to access. With a sense of defeat, I gathered myself and began planning the recovery phase.

I’d be remiss if I didn’t say the two weeks of recovery and ensuing months were a blur. Staff worked around the clock, constantly troubleshooting and managing changing conditions in an effort to mitigate the onset of mold. Our goal was to move the collection and all of the contents out as quickly as possible. We spent the first five days removing an unimaginable amount of debris, filling four disposal bins (22 feet in length, 8 feet wide and 8 feet high) up a flight of stairs in brutal conditions. It was hot, muddy, humid and smelled terrible. To this day, I can still remember the smell of the flood-ridden basement and all of its wet contents. By the sixth day, and with the assistance of generators, we powered up the cargo elevator, which allowed us to move the remaining 143 pianos to an offsite facility. Bringing the pianos to a secure offsite facility would allow us to dry the instruments and evaluate the extent of the damage.

In just 12 days, a total of 65 volunteers and 25 staff worked tirelessly to evacuate 7,000 square feet of basement collections storage. It was a herculean effort by all and showed the resiliency, dedication, and passion of our team and volunteers.

Flood damaged instruments at offsite facility. Photo credit: Chad Schroter-Gillespie.

After three months of work, and despite all of our efforts, all 143 pianos, and a collection of technical support materials used to ensure the long-term care of our “living” musical instrument collections, were a complete loss, deemed irreparable.

It was a huge blow given all of the work during the flood recovery, and not to mention the years we spent restoring and maintaining many of those instruments. Two of my favourite pianos that were damaged because of the flood include a one-of-a-kind nine-foot piano made for a church organist by Brackett in the 1890s. The ‘Pedal’ piano was designed with a pedalboard, allowing the organist to control the keys of the piano with his feet as you would an organ. This was created so that he could practice in the warmth of his home instead of in the cold church on the organ. Another of my favorites was a very rare Bosendorfer “Emánuel Moór” double keyboard piano, which allows the pianist to spread the distance of two octaves with one hand. The piano action, in particular, was one of the most complicated I’ve ever had the privilege to restore. At the time, however, I’m not sure I would have used those exact words.

“Solar Drones” audio installation by Patrick Marold. Photo credit: Neil Zeller.

Despite the loss, there is a silver lining to the story. In an effort to bring life back into the artifacts, artist Patrick Marold used salvaged spruce from damaged piano soundboards to create “Solar Drones,” a public art piece that is now located on the East Village Skybridge inside Studio Bell.

Activated by solar panels on the roof, the reverberating drone of the piece is especially noisy on sunny days. Much like a piano, it can be tuned and artists in residence can incorporate its ambient sounds into their own exploration. Never did I imagine how those lost instruments could be repurposed into one that “plays the sun.”

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