Tuesday, May 19, 2015

Global Family Reunion


I was recently invited to "tell" at the storytelling portion of the Global Family Reunion on June 6th in New York. I am very excited by the opportunity to share not only my story, but the stories of my ancestors. If you are in the New York area, please come by and say hello.

Thursday, December 4, 2014

Upon closer inspection

When we look more closely, we are rewarded with greater insight.


Last week I found a 19th century photo of the Château de Vaumarcus, the de Büren family home for many generations, and decided to make a high resolution scan for this blog. It seemed at first blush to be a standard shot of the castle on a sunny afternoon. Only while digitally repairing the scratches and affects of age did I find some hidden secrets.

A triangular section of masonry above the barn, where the castle wall must have been altered.

A male de Büren relative standing by the ancient drawbridge.

A female de Büren ancestor looking out towards Lake Neuchâtel and the family dog lounging in the sun.

Saturday, November 29, 2014

Fit to be Square

"Music is a moral law. It gives soul to the universe, wings to the mind, flight to the imagination, and charm and gaiety to life and to everything." – Plato

My parents purchased the personal estate of my grand-aunt and prolific artist Natalie de Büren–essentially site unseen–in the mid-1980s while on holiday in Switzerland. She was in a nursing home and my father did it in large part to save her artwork, artwork that I have profiled extensively on this site. My father also knew he was preserving other family heirlooms, but was ignorant of all the estate contained.

There were many precious artifacts that emerged from the large steamer crate that finally arrived in California, none more so than the 1793 square piano, built in Bern by Swiss instrument maker Niclaus Kaderli.



“Square pianos first appeared in London in 1766. Harpsichord players loved them - their treble tones sounded so much sweeter than contemporary grand pianos - and these 'small pianofortes' were so much cheaper. Also, their small size and convenient shape made them suitable for any room. In fact they were so portable they could be carried from room to room with ease. Until c.1790 the harpsichord and piano existed side by side, rated as equally useful instruments. Consequently many wealthy home owners had both, finding that a small pianoforte could be easily accommodated.

Their most influential devotees were high society women such as Queen Charlotte of England and Marie Antoinette of France. Both were fond of music and, like many of their contemporaries, they were charmed by the tone of these pianos, not simply in solo pieces but most importantly, in accompaniments for songs. Music-making in a domestic setting was a very frequent and fashionable activity and in this context songs, with a suitable accompaniment from pianos like this one, were of great importance.”

- Square Pianos (A Brief History)

An example of a square piano of the same era can be seen at the Swiss National Museum at the Château de Prangins.


As with many family heirlooms that have perhaps been stored in less than ideal conditions; furniture, documents, and artwork, can arrive in various states of disrepair. This have been the case with many oil portraits and was tragically also the case with the Kaderli piano.

However, this instrument chose the right new home. My father has always been an ardent lover of classical music, opera, ballet, and was a concert pianist as a boy. Once he saw it, he wanted to return this instrument to its former glory. Kaderli's piano that had been played by family members, its music had surely fostered a convivial atmosphere amongst friends and had resided within the walls of the Château de Vaumarcus.



After some research, a restorer was found. The piano was restored by Bjarne “Barney” Dahl (1930-2009) a craftsman and restorer of harpsichords and antique pianos. He worked on the Kaderli square piano for over a year, my father telling him to take all the time he needed. He was also better known as the longtime owner of the Cardinal Hotel in Palo Alto and was responsible for its restoration. The following section comes from Dahl's restoration summary. I have edited his words only for spelling and grammatical errors. The accompanying photos were also taken by Dahl to document his process.

"Upon my first inspection in May 1987, this piano appeared to be complete with exception of the pedal lyre and one pedal. Only one pedal with a broken hinge remained. The bottom of the case and instrument appeared to have shrunk and wood dust from the powderpost beetle was evident. At the time, this condition did not appear to be serious. When I accepted the commission of restoration, I took the precaution of having the instrument fumigated by Dodd Fumigation in San Francisco.

Upon disassembly, the following conditions of the various action parts were noted (aside from being filthy and moth eaten):

1. Terrible warping of the keys with one ivory missing
2. All wool cloth parts totally destroyed by bugs
3. Most of the parchment hinges and leather hinges were fine
4. All tuning pins were rusty but salvageable
5. All damper return springs were bent but salvageable
6. Damper push rods were badly damaged and shortened, all or most needed replacement
7. Tuning block was in good condition
8. All strings were corroded and rusted
9. Many bumper buckskin coatings were worn through and need replacement
10. Many damper pads needed replacement
11. Soundboard split and under ribs loose.







I removed the soundboard and made horrible discovery. I noticed that the bottom board felt spongy and I could poke my finger through. I discovered total disintegration of this member by the powderpost beetle, a 3 inch thick piece of Swiss pine. The damage covered one 10 inch wide section and meant that I had to take apart every member of the instrument. The functional capacity of the piano was very much in jeopardy if this decayed member were to remain. This was a serious setback.

The beetle damage was evident over the entire length of the piano. I also discovered upon complete disassembly of the ease and bottom member that the builder was an economizer. The bottom is composed of 3 by 3 inch lengths of Swiss pine glued together to make a whole bottom board. He apparently was short of material and deliberately cut short the boards and placed a piece of dovetail or tongue in groove piece to complete the required length of the bottom board member. This additional piece is made of mahogany, and as as result the bugs ate up only one half of the board. They tried to invade the other half but somehow this member dissatisfied them and no damage resulted. The whole board did however shrink in width by at least 1/2 of an inch. This caused the upper case to distort and is still slightly visible even with a newly restored bottom.

After much effort I located a fine piece of Ponderosa pine from a private mill near Jamesville, California. Pine of 3 inch thickness is simply not available from any commercial source that I could find in the west. The piece that Mr. Meinert sent to me is quarter cut and has been seasoned for 2 years. The bottom board is now half original and half new. The upper case is beautifully made and veneered. The joining is exceptional and of very high quality.







I cleaned and replaced all of the case members using hide glue. I repaired the soundboard and lined the repaired seems with Irish linen tape, soaked in glue. The soundboard support host was reset and the under ribs reglued. After the case and soundboard were reassembled, I cleaned and repaired the entire action and restrung the instrument. I then repaired the stand and legs.

The lid hinges are original as well as most of the hardware. The pedal hinges are new and the pedal linkage levers are original. The lid appears to have been made originally for a clavichord and then adapted by the builder for this piano. The lid seems to be planed thinner on the bass end and is uneven. Warp damage is evident but not bad enough for any extensive repair or replacement, I did however have to add a 3/8 inch piece of walnut on the rear side of the lid (it simply did not fit without this addition) to compensate for the case warpage that has occurred.

This instrument has been worked on in the past. Red pads were added on under the damper shanks, action cloth parts added here and there, some leather and parchment hinge parts replaced and several veneer repairs made, etc. An antique coin from Neuchâtel of 1 Creut and a key were found, both not related to the instrument and all removed parts and debris have been boxed and labeled for future reference.


This instrument has turned out very well and musically is superb. Finger articulation is essential for the light action and the pedal for the lute or (sordine) should not be pressed down hard. All effort has been made to preserve as such of the original instrument as possible and with exception of the bottom lyre board very little compromise was necessary.

Bjarne B. Dahl, January 6, 1987"

Thursday, November 27, 2014

1548 Wappenbuch

Having a distinctive coat of arms is great for many reasons, none more so than adding a level of certainty when chasing visual references to your family history. In pursuing a lead last evening I found another such reference.


I found a link through a heraldry site to a 900 page book containing many ancient family coats of arms. On the 40th page I found the de Büren family crest. Unlike lions, symbols, or geometric shapes which are plentiful in heraldry, bee hives are unique. The name above says "Burron" which is how the name of the town Büren, for which we are named was once written. As I perused many of the additional pages I recognized other Swiss families of note from the period, among them Erlach, Hofmeister, and Neuchâtel.

The author and painter Vigil Raber created in the 16th century a collection of 7244 coats of arms of families primarily (I believe) from within the Holy Roman Empire. The book is housed in the Duchess Anna Amalia Library in Weimar, Germany, a public research library for literary and cultural history with a collection focusing on German literature from the period around 1800. It also preserves literary documents dating from the 9th to the 21st centuries as sources of cultural history and research, indexes them according to form and content and makes them available for use. The library collection amounts to 1 million articles.




Select images from his 1548 Wappenbuch follow.






Saturday, November 22, 2014

Château Lafayette

In conducting some research this past week, I stumbled across a rare document currently for sale at the Raab Collection, a renowned historical document dealer, penned by the Marquis de Lafayette in 1829 in which the de Büren family is mentioned.

Lafayette as a lieutenant general, in 1791. Portrait by Joseph-Désiré Court

Gilbert du Motier, Marquis de Lafayette (1757-1834) was a French aristocrat and military officer who fought for the U.S. in the American Revolutionary War and was close friend of George Washington. He was also a key figure in the 1789 French revolution as well as the 1830 July revolution which saw the overthrow of King Charles X. For his accomplishments in the service of both France and the United States, he is sometimes known as “The Hero of the Two Worlds”.

The letter was written from Lafayette to the General of Engineers, Baron Simon Bernard (1779-1839) who at the time was part of the U.S. Board of Engineers. Like Lafayette he would return to France in 1830 and assist in the “Second French Revolution”. In the letter Lafayette asks Bernard if he could assist a M. de Büren and a M. Zehender who along with other Swiss who are eager to found an agricultural concern in Florida, with the principal intention of planting wine grapes.

Letter original © Raab Collection

The transcribed French text and English translation follow below:

Paris, 29 avril 1829

Je ne sais, Mon cher Général, quand et ou cette lettre vous parviendra; mais je voudrais bien vous présenter M. M. de Büren et Zehender qui vont avec quelques vignerons en Floride pour former un établissement. C’est d’après les renseignements qui me furent envoyés de Tallahassee que ces messieurs ont pris parti. Ils sont liés avec M. Morlot de Crousaz, riche citoyen de Berne, qui souhaite lui même porter des capitaux en Floride. Il paraît que le gouvernement helvétique s’occupe d’encourager l’émigration Suisse vers les Etats-Unis; cela vaudrait bien mieux que ces capitulations au service des monarques européens, dont les nations ne veulent plus, et dont la Suisse elle même est fort d’égouttée. M. de Büren était officier dans les troupes Suisses des Pays Bas, c’est le seul des deux qui est passé à Paris.  Ce jeune homme est Républicain à la manière Américaine; Il veut établir en Floride, en nommément sur mes propriétés, une habitation cultivée par des mains blanches et libres. Il s’agit d’introduire en Floride la culture de la vigne, de l’olivier, du ver à soie. Si cet essai est bien accueilli dans le pays, et que ces messieurs en vendent de bons comptes chez eux, j’espère qu’il en reviendra à la Floride un accroissement de capital agricole et l’introduction de bons cultivateurs. Vous savez combien l’état de l’Ohio a profité des emigrations. Pourquoi ne rendrait-on pas le même service aux belles salubres et fertiles parties de la Floride? Je donne à ces M. M. une lettre pour mon ami et fondé de pouvoir Graham; et je vous prie de leur rendre les services qui dépendront de vous. Recevez, mon cher Général, l’expression de la tendre amitié que je vous ai vouée pour la vie. Lafayette.


Paris, April 29, 1829

I do not know, my dear General, when or where this letter will reach you; but I would like to present to you Messieurs de Buren and Zehender, who are traveling to Florida with some winegrowers to form a business concern. These gentlemen have undertaken this course of action based upon the information I received from Tallahassee. They are associated with M. Morlot de Crousaz, a rich citizen of Bern, who wishes to personally invest in Florida. It appears that the Helvetic government is encouraging Swiss immigration to the United States; which is far better than surrendering to the service of European monarchs, which the nations no longer want, and with which Switzerland itself is wholly disgusted. M. de Buren was an officer in the Swiss guards in the Netherlands; he is the only one of the two to have come to Paris. This young man is a Republican in the American fashion; he wants to establish himself in Florida, principally on my land, a property cultivated by free whites. It concerns introducing grape vines, olive trees, and silkworms into Florida. If this effort is well received, and if these gentlemen do well financially, I hope that Florida will see an increase in its agricultural capital and the introduction of good farmers. You know well how the state of Ohio has profited from emigration. Why would we not give the same assistance to the healthy and fertile areas of Florida? I am giving to these gentlemen a letter for my friend and Commissioner Graham; and I bid you to give them the help they need. Accept, my dear General, my warmest expressions of devoted life-long friendship. Lafayette


The family member is question is Louis Amedé de Büren (1802-1879), the first family member to emigrate to the United States and found the renamed Van Buren branch. Louis had served in the Swiss guards in Holland as indicated in the letter, was deeply disenchanted with European society and was looking for a fresh start in the United States.

Louis did in fact emigrate to the United States in 1829, passed through Baltimore and arrived ultimately in Madison, Indiana where he settled down. The letter from Lafayette poses many new questions for me however. Did Louis go to Florida first? Did he go to Indiana with other Swiss emigrants, with plans on moving onto Florida but never go? Did his fellow Bernese compatriot, Zehender go to Florida in his place?

Beyond the importance to my family history, I find the link to the wine fascinating. The first american commercial winery has its roots in Indiana thanks to Swiss emigrants who left Vevey on the lake of Geneva at the end of the 18th century and settled in Vevay, Indiana, the seat of Switzerland county. To commemorate the wine heritage of the region, Vevay holds the Swiss Wine Festival every year in late August.

Whatever the reason, Louis not making it to Florida to grow grapes was for the best. Given the tropical climate and grapevine diseases, viniculture in the sunshine state is very difficult, and would have certainly been a losing proposition in 1829.

Wednesday, August 6, 2014

Armance Illustrated

Family archives are varied not only by their historical import but also by the nature of the types of objects grouped within. The following book is a prime example.



It is a 1967 French paperback of Stendhal’s Armance, a romance novel originally published in 1827 which revolves around Octave de Malivert, a taciturn but brilliant young man, who is attracted to Armance Zohiloff, who shares his feelings. It describes how a series of misunderstandings have kept the lovers Armance and Octave divided.

The book in and of itself in unremarkable, something you could buy in Paris at a used book shop for a couple of Euros. However, the axiom “never judge a book by its cover” is uniquely appropriate here, for when I loosely thumbed its pages I found countless small drawings adorning them. They appear to be inspired by the text and were done by a family friend as a gift.

The inscription says (translated from French): “To Alfred and Natalie Copponex from François Fosch, with gratitude for the enduring memories.”

Armance had a surprise for me that went beyond the story of two young lovers.









Saturday, July 26, 2014

Your papers please

As a creative and designer I have always loved passports, passport stamps and the design of official state documentation. I am in the midst of renewing my Swiss passport, so finding two early 19th century passports that belonged to my great-great-great-grandfather, Albert de Büren was very timely.

I loved finding and examining these treasures. Everything about them interests me, the design of the document, the stamps and the handwriting of each individual. In looking at each stamp, I am transported to these European locales, and I start to ponder: What was my ancestor thinking at the time? How was he treated by the official who signed his pass? What uniform did the official wear? Where was the document stamped, etc., etc.


The first document is a Prussian passport from Albert's 1813 journey to Breslau (now in Western Poland) and Vienna.

Passport front

Passport front detail

Stamp from Breslau

Stamp from Vienna as well as the Swiss consulate in Vienna

Return route stamp from Munich

Return route stamp from Zürich



The second document is a Neuchâtel passport from Albert's 1818 journey to Nice which was part of the Kingdom of Sardinia at the time.

Passport front

Passport detail – Coat of Arms

Passport detail – Physical characteristics

Albert's signature

Passport underside

Stamp of the French legation to Switzerland

Stamp of the Sardinian legation to Switzerland

Stamp of the Swiss consulate in Marseille

Stamps from Nizza (Nice)

Return stamp from Lyon

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