Family piano hits the right note as furniture

By Lauren Williams Staff Writer

April 3, 2014

In Helen Vann’s living room sits a beautiful mahogany bench and table. Looking at them, it’s hard to believe these pieces of furniture were once a piano.

“My mother Annie Bell Herring Bass purchased the piano when I was 10 years old, so around 1944,” shared Vann Monday afternoon of the family heirloom, recalling how she and her two sisters played the piano as children, taking lessons for several years from a Mrs. Weller of Clinton.

“It was one of those upright pianos,” she said. “We were so pleased to have a piano at our house.”

Vann also remembered her mother playing the piano, filling the house with the sounds of favorite hymns.

“She played a lot and by ear,” she shared, mentioning that some of her mother’s favorite songs were “Amazing Grace,” “Showers of Blessings,” and “My Hope is Built.” “After Dad died, I’d go visit her and she’d just be playing it by herself, for her own entertainment. You know, back then you didn’t have to have a computer to be entertained.”

When her mother also passed, the piano was to go to Vann’s daughter Helen Ray Smith of Salemburg but Smith already had a piano in her home so Vann stored it for her daughter at the Farm House Restaurant which she then owned and ran with her husband.

The piano sat there for years until the Vanns sold the property and had to clean out the buildings.

“It almost went to the dump,” admitted Vann, remembering how the family felt “overwhelmed” during the process of selling the restaurant. “It was not in good condition either. There was no way it could be tuned. We had looked into that.”

Thankfully, one night, Vann had an idea. Dreading the thought of not being able to pass the piano down to future generations in the family, she decided to try to find another way for it to be used.

“I thought, ‘You know, it’s probably beautiful wood. Maybe we could make something from it,’” she recalled. “I was thinking about making it into small end tables for the girls (her two daughters) but it turned out to be something prettier and bigger than I imagined.”

That’s all thanks to Nick Bryant of Wood-N-Things Custom Woodwork. Although used to making cabinets, Bryant took on the challenge of transforming Vann’s old piano into something new and more useful that the family could still treasure.

Bryant began work on the piano in November 2013. “It took him a whole day just to dismantle it,” said Vann, describing how Bryant then took the various pieces, laid them out, grouped and re-grouped them, all part of his creative process in determining how to best use and showcase them.

“He drew out the designs (for a bench and a table) and we liked them very much,” said Vann who received the completed pieces of furniture from Bryant just this past January. “He was so pleased when he got it all done. We asked him which was harder, making this or cabinets, and he said very much so this.”

“He told us he didn’t add any other wood to the pieces,” said Vann, walking over to the bench. “I’m glad he was able to use its entirety. He’s using the scraps to make some picture frames right now too.”

“See here,” Vann said, pointing to the intricate design on the back section of the bench. “That’s where the music stood on the piano.”

“This part here,” she continued, walking over to the table and touching the top, “is what you opened up to see the notes inside. He even left the hinges on the back which I’m glad he did. And the legs here are the legs from the front of the piano…Yes, we’re very pleased with how it turned out.”

Vann’s fondness for the piano-turned-furniture is evident with every comment and gesture, but she shared that there’s still so much she wishes she knew about the piano’s history.

“I don’t think it was new (when her mom bought it)…It was made in New York,” she said, recalling how the family found that and the company information in the piano when they pulled it out of storage. But Vann does not recall ever hearing any further details about where the piano came from, like a church or a school, or how it was transported to Sampson County so many years ago. “I wish I did know that.”

Although at home in Vann’s living room for now, the furniture will not remain there for long.

“The girls said for me to keep it here until all the family sees it then they’ll take it,” she said, noting that there’s a piece for each of her two girls who both plan to place their piece of furniture in their foyers. And this handing down of the family treasures is just the beginning. The tradition will continue as one day, Vann noted, the pieces will be given to her five grandchildren. “That’s the idea, to pass it on.”

Lauren Williams can be reached at 910-592-8137, ext. 117 or via email at