A gift of harmony: Welborn Steinway returns

In early 2018, Colorado Academy celebrated a homecoming—not with a pep rally or athletic event, but with the sound of music, played on a 117-year-old Steinway Model “O” grand piano, filling the rooms of Welborn House. This was a homecoming nearly three-quarters of a century in the making, the result of one family’s legacy at CA—their passion for music, a love for educating young people, and a belief that there should be “a piano in every house,” including the one that still bears their family name.

‘She was the one who protected it’

The piano which now graces the long west hall in Welborn House was originally purchased in 1901 from a Steinway dealer in Colorado Springs by Ada and Jesse Welborn. Ada was an accomplished musician and wanted a piano in her home. She brought the piano (probably by train and buggy) to her home in Denver, and later moved it (1906) to her country home, the iconic Welborn House on CA’s campus. Ada died in 1935, and when Jesse died after WWII in 1945, the house was sold. Ada’s piano was still there, and its fate fell into the hands of Jesse’s youngest son Bob Welborn and his then new wife Frances Newton “Salty” Welborn.

Bob, like his mother Ada, was truly accomplished at the piano. Salty also played regularly and well, and according to their son, Jeff Welborn ‘64, she was also a wonderful “opportunist, in the best sense of the word—Mom made decisions and things happened.” He imagines his mother “seizing the day and practically hauling the piano herself” across Pierce Street to its new home, a small farm house on the Newton farm.

Through the years, every time Bob and Salty moved, they brought Ada’s piano along until, in 1970, it came to live at the Welborn’s stone farmhouse in Franktown, Colo. There the family knew it as “The Steinway in the Stone House.” Salty continued her long tradition of vigilance, keeping it tuned by a local Steinway expert and guarding the piano from destruction. “Salty was so worried about mice getting into the piano that she had mousetraps throughout the piano room,” says Jeff. “All credit for the wonderful condition of this piano goes to Salty Newton Welborn. She was the one who protected it from 1945 on.”

‘He wanted every house to have a piano’

Jeff Welborn remembers sitting in the stairwell of his home as a small child and listening to his father, Bob (a water attorney by day), play the piano at night.  “His mother Ada died when he was a teenager, and that affected him deeply,” Jeff Welborn says. “When he played, I’m sure that it reminded him of his mother and brought him joy and comfort. After difficult years serving in World War II, music was his refuge.”

Jeff’s son, John Welborn, remembers that his grandfather (whom he calls “Pops”) was specific about what music he liked the most. “With a twinkle in his eye, Pops always said you can play anything you want as long as it’s Bach or Beethoven,” John says. “Salty loved Mozart, but Pops was not a Mozart man, and it was fun to decide which grandparent you were going to play for.”

When John spent summers working on the Franktown farm, it was not uncommon for him to take a lunch break from stacking hay and come in to play the Steinway grand. He and his sister, Rebecca, who plays the cello, performed for their grandparents. John has continued his love of music and still plays piano with private chamber groups.

Ada’s great-great grandsons, current CA students Ben (Grade 7) and Eli (Grade 2) Rockmore, also played the Ada’s piano when they visited Bob and Salty, their great-grandparents. Ben and Eli are the sons of Andy and Lizzie Welborn Rockmore ‘90 and the fifth generation of Welborn pianists to play Ada’s piano.

With so many memories associated with the Steinway, Jeff Welborn made certain that having it come back to Welborn House was okay with the family after Salty died. “All agreed that Pops (Bob) thought that every house should have a piano that young people can learn on and play, especially Welborn House.” So, that is how, on a windy and snowy April morning this year, Ada Welborn’s piano came back through the doors of Welborn House after an absence of 73 years. It was also just over a year after CA completed extensive remodeling and restoration work on the century-old house.

CA’s Henry Chesley-Vogels play the theme to La La Land on the day the piano was delivered.

‘Honored by young musicians’

At the time it was built, Ada Welborn’s Steinway represented the gold standard for pianos. Made in America, it rivaled its European competitors. Today, 117 years later, Ada’s piano still has all the original parts, including the sounding board and keys. “It’s a beautiful piano, with light action,” says John Welborn. “It helps that it has not left Colorado, so it was never exposed to a different climate.”

Jeff Welborn believes his father and mother would be delighted that Ada’s piano will now be forever at CA where young people can make the instrument sing. “They were thrilled by what the school has become,” Jeff says, “and having Ada’s piano live at CA is a wonderful way for them to have a continued presence at the school as well.”

“Think of the many dedicated educators and benefactors, and the wonderful things they have done, to make sure that Welborn House still stands as a place of learning,” says Jeff. “Now it can also once again be home for a piano that really began its life there. This Steinway has the added weight of provenance. It can now continue to be honored by the fingers of young musicians while old memories are kept alive and new ones are generated.”