Ashford Family’s Historic Piano Finds New Home at Oglethorpe

Mrs. Constance Ashford Wright donated this beautiful piano to Oglethorpe because she thought that returning the piano to the land that her family provided to the university was “the place that it should be.”

Earlier this month, Mrs. Constance Ashford Wright contacted me and asked if Oglethorpe would be interested in a donation of a historic Broadwood piano that had belonged to her late husband, Tate Wright, Jr. Though Mrs. Wright has no direct connection to Oglethorpe, she indicated that her grandfather had provided to Dr. Thornwell Jacobs the property upon which the campus is located. This family is the “Ashford” of nearby Ashford-Dunwoody Road.

Both Dr. Brent Runnels, our affiliate artist in piano, and I were immediately intrigued and excited to see and hear the instrument. John Broadwood & Sons of London has been a maker of fine harpsichords and pianos for almost 300 years, and is one of the most prestigious companies for such in the world. The instruments have been enjoyed by musicians such as Mozart, Haydn, Chopin, Beethoven and Liszt. The company’s use of metal string plates and a bolted iron frame provided more structural strength to the piano, along with additional power and volume—just one of the “firsts” credited to the Broadwood company that moved the evolution of the piano forward. The company holds the Royal Warrant as manufacturer of pianos to Queen Elizabeth II.

As soon as we saw and played the instrument, we knew we had a significant and historic find for Oglethorpe. Though out-of-tune, its action (keyboard mechanism) was in exceptionally good shape and its soundboard gave fleeting glimpses of its original, glorious tone. The entire piano with its exquisite rosewood case was in remarkably good condition. Handwritten mechanical notes on the bottom gives the impression that the piano was built around 1870 and perhaps earlier.

The piano is moved into its new home, the Weltner Library.

On Friday, May 18, the piano was moved from Mrs. Wright’s home to the east wing of the Weltner Library’s main floor. It is playable even as it is and we welcome those who wish to try it, as long as it does not disturb any library patrons. It is hoped that, in time, we may be able to rebuild the instrument so that its full, original, glorious sound may still be heard.

Next time you have a chance, stop by the Weltner Library to see this piece of history!

Dr. W. Irwin Ray is Director of Musical Activities at Oglethorpe University.

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