Adam’s Room: A lifetime of treasures

Adam’s Room. That’s what’s written on the child-like plaque fastened to the door. Only this particular Adam is no child. He’s 84 years-old and his room houses a lifetime of treasures.

Admittedly, some are treasures only to him — such as the framed certificate of achievement he was recently awarded at a drivers’ training course; the photo of his grandson, a slicked up body builder; and one of his nephews, the former Manitoba Premier and later Governor General Ed Schreyer.

All else is a treasure trove for anyone remotely interested in musical instruments. Hanging from the ceiling, on the walls, and propped up against pieces of furniture are violins of every shade, shape and origin. Gottfried is a committed collector — at last count, he had 104 violins packed into his tiny midtown Toronto home. But he’s also a craftsman. In 1981, shortly after retiring, he took a violin-making course at the Ontario College of Art. “You know, I was the only one in the class who finished a violin,” he says. Since that time, he’s made seven. The first one took a “month and a day” but over the years he has devised “short cuts” to speed the process along. For instance, he decided the laborio hand sanding of the ribs (the sides of the instrument) could be avoided by introducing a four-inch belt sander to the process. Gottfried, who worked in carpentry, tool repairs and construction for 37 years, is an innovator. “If he can’t find it, he’ll invent it,” says his son Richard. And so, he improvised so that the sander would adjust to the desired thickness of the ribs (the variations in thickness of the wood is the “secret” to violin making, explains Gottfried). Only in the final stages will he then take sand paper in hand and refine his work. He boasts of having built a violin from scratch in just two weeks.

^^His basement workshop is filled with hundreds of these homemade tools as well as stacks of wood — maple for the back and ribs, spruce for the “belly”. And such materials don’t come cheap: A piece of wood to make the neck of the instrument costs $100, and Gottfried estimates the total wood needed to craft one violin costs approximately $500. He hasn’t kept track of the money he’s spent, though. “It doesn’t matter,” he says, “it’s a labor of love.”

Of the seven he has made, two he kept for himself, and the others he gave to his children. But most of his time is spent repairing violins for his loyal clientele, and a music shop in his neighbourhood brings him their customers’ bows and violins to repair.

Gottfried’s parents moved to Canada in 1903 from Austria. He was brought up in Gimli, MB, a small town north of Winnipeg and moved to Toronto in 1937. He married shortly after and had five children. He now has 17 grandchildren and 10 great grandchildren. When he was 12, he saved up $12.50 to buy his first violin from Eatons. He taught himself to play, yet to this day he cannot read a note of music.

On special display in “Adam’s Room” is a Russian violin, made in 1850, that he picked up at a garage sale. He points to a violin made by Lott, a highly regarded English maker, crafted in 1783. There are other seemingly less impressive ones, of which Gottfried is proud. Most of them he has rescued and repaired. They are meticulously cared for and each is tagged with a number which corresponds to its particular case. “A violin is like a finger print,” he says with intensity. “Every violin is different — its feel, its tone. It could have come from the same tree. But there are no two alike. I cherish them all, even a cheap one.”

Also in the room is a mandolin, a cello, a hammered dulcimer (a stringed instrument you strike with a mallet), an odd looking horn viola, an accordion and a piano. He taught himself to play all of these instruments, some by listening to a tape recording and then mimicking the sounds. For years, Gottfried would disappear into his workshop at 8 a.m. and wouldn’t resurface until dinner time. “He might as well have put his lunch pail under his arm and kissed my mother goodbye,” says son Richard. However, Gottfried senior laments his heyday of building violins are drawing to a close. Both he and his wife suffer from angina and Gottfried now wants to devote all of his time to caring for her.

With tears welling up in his eyes he says, “Let’s just put it this way — my wife comes first.” But in the next breath he says, “I’m looking for a Zither.” Excitedly, he rummages through a stack of newspaper clippings and pulls out a picture of an old Austrian string instrument.” I’ve wanted to make one, but if I can find one to buy, it’ll save me a lot of money.” Passion such as this lasts a lifetime.