The history of Nashville’s French-Starr Piano Building

Starr Piano Company, ca. 1911 | Photo via Tennessee State Library and Archives

Since we live in Music City, we couldn’t pass up the opportunity to reminisce on Nashville’s rich music history during National Piano Month. Today, we’re reprising the story of one of the most influential players in the Southern piano scene. 🎹

Jesse French relocated to Nashville from England with his family when he was 10 years old. He quickly picked up a love for music + began playing piano for a small band. His passion turned into a career that led to the opening of the Jesse French Piano & Organ Company

At the time, Nashville was a small town bustling with residents with an eye for glamor + music. Seen as a product for the middle class, pianos became extremely popular and were highly desired. In 1854, a report by the Republican Banner claimed, “We have heard the opinion expressed that there were, probably, more pianos in Nashville than in any place of its population in the United States.”

Placing a unique equal emphasis on pianos and sheet music, the company expanded to St. Louis in 1887 + quickly became one of the largest piano companies in the South. In the 1890s, the business relocated to its final home at ​​240-242 5th Ave. N. 

According to an ad, Jesse’s pianos were once selling for $200 (which is ~$2,700 today), and organs were a whopping $65. Around 200 instruments from some of the most iconic makers were kept in stock in the new Queen Anne style building

On Tuesday and Friday nights, the amateur Jesse French Orchestral Society of Nashville would meet at the shop to play. Jesse has been credited for playing a major role in the development of ragtime music in the late 1800s-early 1900s. 

Following his move to the company’s 2nd headquarters in St. Louis, Jesse transferred the deed to the building to his brother-in-law in 1897, which resulted in a string of company mergers and a signature line of pianos. The company + its Nashville headquarters were bought out by Henry Gennett and Oscar Field in 1902, and ultimately closed as the Starr Company in 1929.

The 4-story Jesse French Piano & Organ Company Buildingnow vacant — was placed on Historic Nashville’s Nashville Nine list of endangered properties in need of preservation in 2011.