John Shearer: Summitt Pianos Enjoying New Location In Unique Hixson Pike Building

Saturday, January 18, 2020 - by John Shearer

In an unusual building where customers were once greeted by a statue of the Shoney’s Big Boy, visitors are now met by busts of Chopin and Beethoven.


It is all part of the look now that Summitt Pianos reopened in recent months at 3889 Hixson Pike in the uniquely roofed and glass-faced structure that historic preservations consider one of the best examples of mid-century modern commercial architecture remaining in Chattanooga.


“If you are from Chattanooga, you know this building,” said store manager Buddy Shirk with a laugh during a recent tour of the place that opened about 60 years ago as a Shap’s Big Boy Drive In.

“It is an architectural wonder, if you will.


“I think it’s perfect. It’s got beautiful windows.”


Many might argue that the building – which has also served as everything from a hair salon to an archery store to a stone supplier in recent decades – is also perfectly suited to be a piano store. Not only does its gently lifting roofline slightly mirror a grand piano – a comment Mr. Shirk said he has heard often since the relocation – but the building also hints of being a miniature Sydney Opera House.


The way the high ceiling slopes upward on the inside does create a good acoustical effect, and Summitt has been able to continue its tradition of hosting recitals, concerts and auditions. In fact, its first event late last spring – a few days before its actual opening – was the national guild audition competition the store has traditionally hosted.


Summitt Pianos decided to relocate following an arson-related fire at its store at 6200 Lee Highway in January 2018. The firm had evolved from the Lansford piano business that for decades was on Cherry Street downtown.


Ted Summitt Sr. had been a tuner and technician with Lansford – which had been the oldest continuous Baldwin dealer in the nation – and Mr. Shirk crossed paths with him while running the sales floor there in the 1970s.


Mr. Shirk later worked in the piano retail business in Atlanta with Baldwin before returning to Chattanooga.


After Mr. Summitt Sr. bought the business in the early 1990s and following other phases of change, it is now owned by Ted Summitt Jr. and his wife, Julie. The store is open every day except Saturday, due to the Summitt family’s Seventh-day Adventist Church beliefs.


The store – which is the only piano retailer in Chattanooga now that Bill Jones Music in Ooltewah closed in late December – has been the exclusive local Steinway & Sons dealer since 2002. Steinway, of course, is considered the Mercedes-Benz or Cadillac of pianos.


The firm also sells the mid-level and Japanese-made Boston pianos and the beginning-level and Chinese-made Essex brand. Both are designed by Steinway, but in contrast to the custom-made style of Steinway that uses the highest quality materials, the other two are mass produced, Mr. Shirk said.


One Steinway grand piano on the floor at the store was for sale for $71,800, while the comparably sized Boston instrument was about a fifth the cost, and the Essex less than that.


Mr. Shirk said the quality of a top-level grand piano compared to others can be found in part in the extra rich sound of the bass notes when those keys are played.


He added that his firm usually sells about four Steinway grand pianos a year on average.


Also in the building last week was a concert grand piano used by the Chattanooga Symphony. It is stored there and moved back and forth from the Tivoli Theatre, he said.


Summitt Pianos also operates the Choo Choo Moving and Piano Moving Plus businesses out of the building.


The store also sells vertical pianos and such other brands as Baldwin, Pearl River, Kawai and Yamaha, among others. Both new and used instruments are part of the store’s offerings, he said.


Also on display in the store were a Steinway & Sons vertical piano from more than 100 years ago, and an organ that was used in recent years at Engel Stadium during tours.


While national news reports have said fewer people are playing the piano in recent decades, Mr. Shirk said Chattanooga has a rich musical tradition and many families are still wanting to continue having a child learn to play this instrument that cannot be carried by hand.


He said the business has been good since they relocated, due in part to its somewhat central location in town to potential customers. It is also near music stores Giant Steps just south and Mountain Music just north in Highland Plaza.


Besides helping customers figure out their financial numbers in looking for the ideal piano, Mr. Shirk is also known for being able to play musical numbers. He is one of the more familiar organists in town and is active in several guilds and music groups and often plays the Mighty Wurlitzer before movies at the Tivoli.


He is also involved in music events and festivals such as the MAINx24 parade, In fact, he can often be seen outside at a festival or event as much as a food truck, playing a piano or encouraging others to play.


“Everybody loves to play outside,” he said of his motivation.


Mr. Shirk grew up playing the organ first and said that is his better instrument.


“I learned to play as a child on a Hammond organ,” he said. “I didn’t get a piano until years later.”


He said playing a piano is actually different from playing an organ, even though accomplished musicians can often play both. “A piano you play but an organ you manipulate,” he said with a smile.


And officials with Summitt Pianos have been able to manipulate and refurbish this building as well to fit their needs, giving it a cleaner look to complement the pure sounds of the Steinways coming out of it.


Although they initially looked to see if it was salvageable, they have since done much repair to the interior low ceiling area in the back, painted the exterior tan brick white, and sandblasted and painted gray the expansive former blue roof.


The parking lot was also black topped, and now they feel they have the perfect retail stage, if you will, to encourage people to tickle the ivories.


“It is quite a cool building,” said Mr. Shirk. “It would have been a shame to have seen it torn down. It is in the perfect location for a piano store.”

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