PPNA Happenings

Happenings, history and news of the Prospect Park Neighborhood and Ypsilanti

John Challis Harpsichord Maker

Posted by ppna on December 19, 2007

There is a lot of information on John Challis on the internet but I’m only going to give a brief summary of a Time Magazine article from Jan 24, 1944.

John Challis was considered the maker of the finest U.S. harpsichords. He was born and raised in Ypsilanti and as of 1944 he built his harpsichords in a two-floor studio above an Ypsilanti dress shop where he produced 8 a year. The Challis harpsichords were designed differently than the traditional harpsichords Challis used bakelite, aluminum and nylon along with traditional materials to create a harpsichord powerful enough to be heard in large U.S. concert halls.

There are Challis harpsichords available on the internet for around $2000. I suggest we pick one of these up for the new PPN community center. Does anyone know what happened to John Challis? Is there anyone playing a Challis harpsichord here in Ypsilanti?

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21 Responses to “John Challis Harpsichord Maker”

  1. arlene stein said

    How exciting to find someone else knows of John Challis and his unique talent..! I too would like to know about John Challis, as my father was good friends with he and his partner Ephreim Truesdell. My father, a foreign student from Montevideo, Uruguay,SA, lived with the Truesdell family while attending the University of Michigan…Ephreim was attending at that time as well….

    (Ephreim had a sister named: Josephine Truesdell Francisco, who lived in Wayne, Mi.; John, had a brother named Dean, married to Florence(Flossie)Wilkes, of Ypsilanti. (My father also lived with Dean and Flossie) Dean retired as principal of Dearborn Highschool.(Flossie’s niece Marilyn Wilkes, married former Ypsilanti Mayor, Clyde King…)

    Just weeks prior to my father’s passing, he attended a Guitar Concert in Detroit, by /clssical guitarist Segovia, at the invitation of Ephreim and John in January, 1958… We have since lost track of everyone, but, we did learn John and Ephreim moved their business from Detroit to New York, New York…

    My mother passed away this past year, and lookin through old papers and photos, I came across a picture of Ephreim and the ‘Segovia concert bill’, which raised questions as to what ever happened to John & Ephreim…. and to their harpsichord business????

    I’m hoping maybe somehow a clue may be found leading to further info about John Challis….

    I’ll be looking for follow-up…..

    Goood Luck!!!!

    Arlene

    • Douglas said

      Arlene,

      It was my pleasure to meet Ephreim Truesdell. A friend designed fashion on the 7th floor of 133 Fifth Ave. He was kind enough to sit for a portrait fabricating the beautiful harpsichord. Please email a reply where to send it.

      Douglas 5/25/10

      • arlene said

        Douglas,

        Please send to above email address.
        I am very anxious to see the portrait, as I last saw Ephraim at my
        father’s funeral in 1958.

        Thannk you,

        Arlene

  2. I was doing some research on Ypsilanti harpsichords and came across this site. I recently received a photograph of the famous Missouri artist Thomas Hart Benton playing his harmonica in the living room of his Kansas City home. There is an unidentified woman accompanying him on the harpsichord. The front panel clearly shows that it is a Challis harpsichord. Benton’s son T.P. is also seen playing the flute; he looks to be about 14 years old, which dates the photo ca. 1939-1942. Thought you might be interested.

  3. egpenet said

    I visited Challis’s Detroit studio on Vernor near Woodward in the 1960’s. A college buddy told me about him and I thought I’d build a clavicord. I wanted to learn more.

    John was quite nice to me and demonstrated his dual manual models and then showed off his reinvented Mozart-Hayden pianoforte. I had never heard such sound before or have since.

    He was constantly smoking and had a bit of a shake at this time. But as soon as he started playing, the shake stopped and he was a magnificent player. Soon after I saw him, he became ill and his partners tried to keep the studio going, as I was told, but could not. Add John to our list of great Ypsilantians.

  4. Barry LaRue said

    The University of Michigan Stearns Collection of musical instruments contains a Challis harpsicord. His factory was above the former Greene’s Jewelers on Michigan Ave. next to DaLot. Up on the third floor I believe.

  5. Phillip Swanson said

    I am a Neurologist in Seattle. My wife, Sheila’s stepmother was Grace Challis Joardar. Grace was John Challis’ sister. When I was in training at Johns Hopkins in Baltimore, John Challis occasionally stopped by on his way to tune up one of his instruments. We visited his factories, the first one in Greenwich Village, the second in lower Manhatten where Ephraim Truesdal (sp?) carried on the business after John died of some kind of liver disorder. It was on lower 5th Avenue around 20th street. We don’t know what happened after Ephraim died a few years back.

  6. David Keller said

    John Challis passed away in 1974. His health had deteriorated significantly over the last few years of his life. The shaky hands forced him to stop making music instruments; very likely was Parkinson’s Disease.

    My Mom was a very close friend of his. My Sister kept the dual manual John Challis Harpsichord after our Mom died in 2002. It was very fascinating to learn about this Harpsichord and John Challis’ unique approach to instrument building. Our Harpsichord used an aluminum honeycomb sandwich sheet for the soundboard, a cast aluminum frame, and Corfram Plectra. We had the Harpsichord restored by Rutkowski & Robinette and they did an excellent job.

    I barely remember John as I was only 10 years old when he passed away. He did always dote on us kids when we visited his house.

  7. ppna said

    James Mann wrote an article on Challis for the A2 news Jan 26, 2009.
    Ann Arbor News Link

  8. j.a.jaeger said

    One of his beautiful instruments, a pedal-harpsichord, can be heard on two CBS records where E.Power Biggs plays Bach’s triosonaten (BWV 525-530) and two concertos (BWV 592 and 593).
    Really an event when you hear those works on harpsichord instead on organ

  9. David Keller said

    There are two videos on YouTube of performances that use a John Challis Harpsichord. The performances are J.S. Bach pieces; BWV 848 Prelude and Fuge in C-Sharp and BWV 825 Partita – Giga No. 1 in B-flat Major. Both pieces were played by Rosalyn Tureck in 1961.

  10. David Worth said

    I just found this site and am delighted to read the previous comments. I have two Challis doubles, acquiring the first in the early Seventies and the second in the late Eighties. I would like to stay connected with people who appreciate these instruments for what they truly are. I visited John Challis numerous times in NYC and found him to be the most generous individual as well as an exceptional performance coach.

    Thank you for making this site accessible

    d-

  11. M Moore said

    My mom and John Challis were cousins. He taught her to play and she talked about him often when we were growing up!

  12. Frederick Battershell said

    In 1955 I, a 16yr old interested in making musical instruments, was introduced to Mr.Challis by Ray McIntyre who was a music librarian at the main Detroit Public library and was also an accomplished harpsichordist. I worked Saturdays and summers for 2 years at Challis first Detroit shop(549 E. Jefferson)and later at his last Detroit location at 85 E.Vernor. I will never forget this experience and the kindness of his partner Ephraim Truesdell. I am building instruments still, altho not harpsichords, altho I have made 3. While Mr.Challis efforts are now sometimes ridiculed, the world of early music owes him as well as his mentor Arnold Dolmetsch a deep debt of gratitude.

  13. Jack Miller said

    I have a friend who has a Challis double concert harpsichord which needs new leather plectra; does anyone know a source for these? Is there a substitute material or does one have to make them? If so, what kind of leather and where do you get it.

    Thanks for any help.

    Jack Miller, Sacramento

    • David Keller said

      Jack,

      John Challis stopped using leather plectra at some point and started building them with Corfram which is a synthetic leather aproximation. I do not know if Corfram is made anymore. Corfram was developed by DuPont but it was a failure for their overall strategic goals. DuPont sold the rights back in 1971 to a Polish company (name unknown). You should try and get in touch with Rutkowski & Robinette. One or both of them apprenticed under John Challis and they did an excellent job of restoring my Mom’s John Challis dual manual back around 2002. I don’t have their contact info directly in hand at the moment. Do some internet searches; they are located in New Jersey. I’ll keep an eye out for any replys from you on this web page.

      Dave Keller

  14. Adam Gilberti said

    UCLA also owns a John Challis harpsichord. We just used it in a lovely performance today, sounded great!

  15. Stephen. Danziger said

    My High School, the H.S. of Music and Art (now LaGuardia H.S.) in Manhattan had a one manual Challis harpsichord in the music office which I played every day–I worked in the office, lunchtime.

    On one occasion, I visited John Challis’ studio on lower Fifth Avenue and he very kindly showed me what he was working on.

    His instruments were made with a metal frame, instead of the usual wooden one. He said that it kept in much better tune. Of course the sound of these instruments was much more powerful than a wood-frame instrument. Some compared it with Wanda Landowska’s metal-frame Pleyel harpsichord which had strings under great tension, as in the piano.

    I have enjoyed reminiscing about this harpsichord, as I approach my 50th reunion from Music and Art in June.

    The instrument at Music and Art had pedals instead of hand stops.

    The appearance of the case when the harpsichord was closed resembled a coffin, and students often commented on what was really inside.

    I have been told that the Challis was moved to their new building behind Lincoln Center, when Music and Art merged with the High School of Performing Arts, in 1984.

    Stephen Danziger, M.D., F.A.A.D., F.A.C.P.
    Treasurer, Brooklyn Chapter, American Guild of Organists

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