After the Marshall fire consumed a priceless piano, a custom builder is playing along with a pianist to create a performance venue.
People build houses for themselves for primal purposes — for safety, for shelter, to lodge a family, or maybe to capture a pretty setting or mark an achievement. But for Shieko Uno, who lost her tri-level home to the Marshall fire, a house was always a place to put a piano.
One specific piano, that is — a 7-foot-4-inch concert grand made by L. Bösendorfer Klavierfabrik of Vienna. “The Bösendorfer,” Shieko says, “is a responsive instrument capable of conveying every emotional expression, solo or in collaboration with other musicians.” She bought it as a young woman with money she earned teaching lessons, and later by working a variety of jobs for tech companies.
The Bösendorfer along with her house and possessions were consumed by the conflagration that raced through Louisville just before New Year’s Eve, 2021 — where temperatures inside were so high that the instrument’s copper-alloy frame with a melting point at 1,984 degrees F, was destroyed.
Finding a place to house the piano had been Uno’s single focus when she house-hunted in 1994, around the time McStain Enterprises was building its Cornerstone area near Harper Lake. “I needed a long enough wall,” she recalls now, sitting beside a Yamaha grand that’s filling in while she waits in a rental on Davidson Mesa for her home to be rebuilt.
The passion for piano Shieko credits to her mother, who had been sent to Japan in the 1920s by her California family to learn native traditions — a custom among Japanese Americans. Years later when the young woman returned, World War II had broken out and the Roosevelt Administration was rounding up Nisei families and shipping them to internment camps —in her mother’s case to a high-security camp in Wyoming, nominally because she had been raised in Japan and had few connections to her country of birth.
A decade later, Shieko’s mom had settled south in Colorado and was requiring all of her kids to learn an instrument—in Shieko’s case, the violin as well as the piano. Shieko recalls that when she began playing at age six, she felt no real dedication. “Music was fun; I could play whatever without practicing.” Teachers noticed, and when college neared, one instructor told her parents that wherever she went, Shieko would have to major in piano.
She did that at CU Boulder, then went on for a master’s at Northwestern, and back to Boulder to work on a doctorate. Along the way, Shieko tried swimming in the very competitive waters of New York City to build a music career, but returned to Colorado where she taught school and worked a receptionist job at a tech company to support herself.
Despite a music resumé, employers liked her abilities, and soon Shieko had money for that concert grand, and a new house to hold it.
“Shieko is the rare individual that will make almost anything happen to pursue a passion,” says builder John Kurowski of Kurowski Custom Homes & Remodeling. In 2013, after Kurowski built a custom home for Shieko’s niece in southeast Denver, Shieko asked whether he would consider opening up the walls of her 1,800-foot tract home to fit in some string performers beside the piano and to seat a small audience, as well.
Kurowski, who is known along the Front Range for energy and environmental innovations that earned him countless awards including numbers as ‘Builder of the Year,’ agreed to the job.
Fast forward to December 2021, and Shieko and her niece were returning from Boulder when they saw a distant grassfire south of U.S. 36. “It couldn’t possibly jump the highway,” she recalls thinking. When the road home became a parking lot, she retreated to her niece’s to wait until officials allowed a return. Two days later, a policeman let the pair walk into Cornerstone on foot, only to find everything including the niece’s car gone.
Kurowski says he was wondering about Shieko and her house when Shieko called him and asked whether he would consider rebuilding it.
“I always wished I had pushed the house out wider,” Shieko recalls now. “It is a do-over opportunity to correct my past mistakes in life.”
As with many other homes lost, the financial side of the rebuild is complicated. The majority of 1,084 dwellings consumed were underinsured after the big runup in prices that homes saw during Covid.
Just the Bösendorfer piano itself, which is now under order for replacement at the firm’s Austrian factory, retails at around $210,000.
“His compassion is amazing,” Shieko says about Kurowski, recalling how the conversation with the builder went.
“I told John that one thing I would love is a solarium — a place that would be your inner sanctum, a quiet place where you could meditate.”
But it would also host performances. “I want to welcome people in, so that they can reconnect with their spiritual center,” she adds.
“I tried to talk her into rebuilding as a ranch instead of a tri-level,” Kurowski recalls, but says that creating the space for miniconcerts is the primary focus. With a ‘design-build-team’ process he describes as creating an experience like he would for his own family, Kurowski is working with Osmosis Architecture on drawings, while Shieko visits design showrooms.
Both Shieko and Kurowski say that some compromises will be necessary, but in line with his history with solar designs, the energy package is going to be a major leap forward from the original one.
“It’s going to be a true custom home,” Kurowski says. “And the fact that it will serve as a concert venue with a solarium is a very cool thing,”
“Whatever John tells me to do, that’s what I’ll do,” adds Shieko.
By Mark Samuelson for AH Luxury