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Organ Edifice Commemorates


The Methuen Memorial Music Hall, home of The Great Organ, America’s first concert organ, is celebrating two milestones this month. May marks the 75th anniversary of the 1946 acquisition and incorporation of the hall as a nonprofit educational and cultural center. And on May 19th, Michael Hey, associate Director of Music at St. Patrick’s Cathedral in NYC, and a well-known concert organist, will play the first program in the Music Hall’s 75th summer recital series. Recitals will be live streamed on YouTube each Wednesday evening at 7:30 PM EDT through August 25th HERE.

Over the years, the organ and the Hall have had their ups and downs. Commissioned at the behest of members of the Harvard Musical Association for the Boston Music Hall, the organ was built by E. F. Walcker & Cie. of Ludwigsburg, Germany and inaugurated to great acclaim in 1863. Newspapers throughout the country reported its, arrival, installation, and dedication [See Dwight’s “Journal of Music” Account HERE]. But as often happens, today’s musical celebrity becomes tomorrow’s musical has-been.

In 1887, at the tender age of 21, The Great Organ was removed to make more room on the stage for the nascent Boston Symphony Orchestra, the city’s latest musical star. William O. Grover, a wealthy trustee of the New England Conservatory, purchased the organ and placed it in storage. He intended to gift it to the Conservatory, to be installed in an envisioned concert hall. But the hall was never built and after Grover died, the organ was auctioned off in 1897 to settle his estate.

Enter Edward F. Searles, Methuen millionaire and amateur organist. “As a boy, he hung around the steps of the village Baptist Church and watched as workman from the Hook firm of Boston unpacked the pipe organ which had been procured from the city builder. He watched each pipe and pedal as it was put in place and then when the bellows was ready he was only too willing to work on the pump in order to be near the swelling cadences.”

“When Mr. Searles went to Boston he intended to be a musician, but chance and circumstances made him a successful decorator. However, he set up a reed organ in his rooms and as soon as he could afford the luxury, he had a set of false pipes placed upon it. Before this instrument he would sit for hours and let his soul drift out onto the tones of the great cathedrals and the divine thunders of their organ pipes.”[1]

In the years between his reed organ reveries and the auction of The Great Organ, Searles’s finances had vastly improved. He met and eventually married Mary Hopkins, the widow of San Francisco railroad baron Mark Hopkins. (Full disclosure: she pursued Searles.) Mary, who was 22 years older, only lived for a few years after their 1887 wedding and died in 1891, leaving him her entire $21 million estate. Searles, who had developed a refined taste in the arts, especially pipe organs, now had ample means to indulge it. He would commission the building or rebuilding of 16 organs during his lifetime.[2]

Organist Henry Morton Dunham, a good friend of Searles, related in his autobiography Searles’s account of how he came to buy The Great Organ. “I saw by the papers that the ‘Great Organ’ was to be sold at auction by the heirs of the Grover estate. The result of that would be that it would be dismembered, scattered over the country and its identity lost. It was difficult for me to imagine such a contingency and I told Ingraham that he might go and bid on it.

“When Ingraham [the organbuilder in charge of the Methuen Organ Company, which Searles owned and financed] asked me how high he could bid, I said, without giving it any thought — for I had no expectation of getting it — ‘Five thousand dollars,’ and then the whole matter slipped from my mind until a few days later when Ingraham came to the house… I said, ‘Well, who got the organ?’ ‘You did, Sir.’ Much surprised and rather dismayed, I asked, ‘And how much do I pay?’ ‘Fifteen hundred dollars.’ Surely cheap enough, but I now had a white elephant on my hands; however, I had it transported to my factory, and when upon unpacking it we found everything in excellent condition, I decided to set it up and also give it a decent home, and this is the result.”[3]

In 1899, Searles commissioned architect Henry Vaughan to design “Serlo Hall” to house the organ. He built it next to the former woolen mill on the banks of the Spicket River, which he had acquired in 1889 and converted to an organ factory. This architecturally and acoustically stunning concert hall never fails to impress visitors. The restrained Anglo-Dutch style exterior belies the splendors within.

It was believed that Vaughn’s design for the hall’s interior was inspired by Christopher Wren’s Church of St. Stephen Walbrook in London.[4] But anyone with a trained architectural eye and a familiarity with both buildings might dispute that theory. Other than the Corinthian order of their column capitals and rosettes in their ceiling coffers, the two interiors have little in common. Most of Vaughan’s buildings were in the Gothic, Tudor, or Elizabethan revival styles. The Serlo Hall interior is a riot of exuberant Italian Renaissance Neo-Classicism, which makes Wren’s and Vaughan’s buildings look tame by comparison.

Searles, who studied art, design, and architectural drawing in Boston[5], and worked as an interior decorator, undoubtedly played a major role in the hall’s design. He had traveled in England and Italy, understood Classical architecture and ornamentation, and had a large collection of architecture books in his library.[6] According to an unpublished biography, Searles would often make a sketch of what he envisioned. “He then showed his sketch to his architect, Henry Vaughan of Boston, told him just what he wanted, and plans for another addition would be drawn up.” [7]

The rebuilding of The Great Organ commenced in 1905. When the organ was removed from the Boston Music Hall, it was suffering from many problems. Dryness from winter heating had caused the wooden parts of the Walcker bellows and the cone-valve windchests to crack and leak air.[8] “A leak in the roof over the swell box caused the wind-chest to be flooded with water several times, rats and mice played havoc with the internal mechanism and the condition of the instrument became so deplorable that the entire instrument could rarely be used at any one time.”[9] In addition, the manual windchests and pipes were on several different levels — making it impossible to keep them all in tune.[10]

Even in its prime, the instrument presented challenges to its players. “The Music Hall organ, by the way, was most embarrassing to play upon, sitting as the organist did, in an alcove directly underneath the pipes, and the action being crude and slow, the sound reached the player nearly a whole beat late.[11]

The organ’s case and pipes, which were in excellent condition, were retained in the rebuilding. But the organ received new slider windchests with electro-pneumatic actions, new structural frames and swellboxes, a completely new wind system with four large reservoir bellows, and a detached electric action console. All the manual windchests were laid out on the same horizontal level, to improve the tuning stability. Though the pipes were retained, they were revoiced for the new chests and reregulated to suit the smaller size of their new home. The Boston Music Hall sat 2,000, but the Methuen hall seats less than 400.

The hall and organ were dedicated in December 1909, with an audience of 250 invited guests. Subsequent recitals were held in 2011 and 2013. After Searles death in 1920 the hall and the adjacent organ factory passed, along with other properties, to Arthur T. Walker, Searles’ business manager and residual legatee. In 1926, to celebrate the 200th anniversary of the Town of Methuen, Walker opened the Hall for 12 organ recitals, played “to throngs of people” by Georgia B. Easton, one of the first women to pass the Associate examination of the American Guild of Organists.[12]

In 1931, organbuilder Ernest M. Skinner purchased the Methuen property. He had previously sold the controlling interest in his eponymous organ company to an organ-loving industrialist who, in 1927, hired G. Donald Harrison, formerly with Henry Willis & Sons in England, to lead the company in a new tonal direction.[13] Having been sidelined, and bound by a five-year non-compete contract, Skinner publicly claimed that he purchased Serlo Hall to save the organ from destruction.[14] But in 1936, when his non-compete contract expired, Skinner and his son, Richmond, started “The Ernest M. Skinner and Son Company” in the Methuen organ factory.[15]

It was here, in 1937-38, that Skinner built his famous organ for the National Cathedral in Washington, DC. During his ownership of the Hall, he presented occasional recitals by several famous organists, including Alexander McCurdy and E. Power Biggs. In June 1942, the War Production Board proscribed the manufacture of new musical instruments. Skinner defaulted on the mortgage and ceased operations in Methuen. The vacant factory building was destroyed by a fire in 1943, but the Hall suffered only smoke damage.

In March 1946, Methuen mill owner Alfred C. Gaunt acquired Serlo Hall and its surrounding property. He then donated it to a group of Methuen citizens who incorporated in May 1946 to operate the hall as a nonprofit educational and cultural center. They renamed it Methuen Memorial Music Hall and set about raising funds “to renovate remodel and maintain the organ, the hall. and the property.”[16] On June 4, organist Arthur Howes, a music faculty member at nearby Phillips Academy in Andover, presented a “Introductory Concert” in the hall. By that time, the organ had dead notes and missing ranks. Howes played just three pieces on mostly full organ, and Australian pianist and composer Percy Grainger (best known for his arrangement of “Country Gardens”), who was concertizing in the Boston area at the time, played two sets of piano pieces. The program was played twice that day, both times to a full house.[17]

A few days later, the local newspaper announced a proposed restoration of the organ, that would “not only make possible the presentation of excellent concerts by distinguished artists but will also open up an almost unlimited range of other musical possibilities.”[18] One month later, on July 8th, the Trustees contracted with G. Donald Harrison and the Æolian-Skinner Organ Company of Boston to “restore and revise” the organ. Due to a limited budget, the 1909 console and slider windchests were retained. The console received new electro-pneumatic drawknob motors and a remote combination action and was made moveable with casters.

Tonally, Harrison made some major changes — replacing nearly all the manual reeds, replacing redundant stops, and recomposing the mixtures. He removed the Tierce ranks from the 5-rank Walcker mixtures on the Great and Swell and recomposed them as 4-rank unison-quint mixtures. A few new Mixtures were added throughout the organ. The unenclosed Choir division was converted to a Positiv. The enclosed Solo division was converted to a Choir. Many Walcker pipes and stops were moved around to suit Harrison’s new tonal scheme and budgetary constraints.

Despite these changes, about two-thirds of the Walcker ranks remain. For example, the Swell stops are half Walcker and half Æolian -Skinner. The Swell 8’ strings and Rohrflute, and all four reeds are Æolian -Skinner. But the rest of the Swell is Walcker. The Great Principal Chorus (8’ thru 2’) is Harrison, but the old one survives in the Great IV-VI Cornet. The Positiv has the highest proportion of Æolian-Skinner stops. The Pedal has the highest proportion of Walcker stops, including the three 32’ stops. It remains possible to draw only the Walcker stops and get an idea of what the organ would have originally sounded like.

The organ was rededicated on June 24th, 1947, in a concert played by Arthur Howes (Phillips Andover Academy), Carl Weinrich (Princeton University), and Ernest White (St. Mary the Virgin, NYC), who had all served as consultants for the rebuilding. The concert and the organ received national attention.

On July 21st, Arthur Howes held his first “Organ Institute” at the Hall. Conceived to spread the ideas of the Organ Reform Movement to American organists, the Institute held classes at the Phillips Andover campus and recitals at the Hall by notable organists such as Howes, Weinrich, White, and E. Power Biggs. Later Institute performers included André Marchal and Marcel Dupré. The Organ Institute continued annually until 1965 and published The Organ Institute Quarterly from 1951 to 1964.

Tom Byers, a former Henry Pilcher’s Sons Organ Company employee who lived in nearby Lawrence attended the Institute with his organist wife. In 1948, he started an organ company which would follow the Institute’s philosophy. He chose the name “Andover” for its prestigious association with the Organ Institute and because of the advantages, in the pre-internet days of telephone directories, of appearing near the top of the alphabetical company listings. The Andover Organ Company, which is just one mile from the Music Hall, maintains The Great Organ to this day.

In subsequent years, the Music Hall hosted programs by many distinguished organists: Arthur Poister, Fernando Germani, Fritz Heitmann, Clair Coci, George Faxon, Virgil Fox, Pierre Cochereau, Karl Richter, Richard Ellsasser, Berj Zamkochian, Wilma Jensen, Susi Jeans, Piet Kee, Anton Heiler, George Markey, and Catherine Crozier, to name just a few. The summer series gradually expanded from four, to eight, to twelve, to the current fifteen weekly recitals.

On November 3, 1963, the Hall celebrated the 100th anniversary of the inauguration of The Great Organ with a gala concert featuring organists E. Power Biggs, George Faxon (Trinity Church, Boston) and John Ferris (Harvard University), and a “Centennial Festival Choir.” The program, performed to a packed house, closed with the “Hallelujah” Chorus (which had been performed at the organ’s 1863 inauguration), sung by all present and accompanied by organ, trumpets, and tympani.

Over the years, at the behest of the Trustees, the Andover Organ Company made several tonal and mechanical changes to the organ. In 1970, they added 16’, 8’, and 4’ Trumpets on the Great windchest, utilizing the reed toeboards which G. Donald Harrison had left empty in the 1947 rebuild. In 2006, they moved the Æolian-Skinner 8’ Krummhorn from the enclosed Choir division to an unused toeboard on the Positiv windchest and installed an Æolian-Skinner 8’ Clarinet on the Choir toeboard where the Krummhorn had been. In 2007, they replaced the seldom used Great 1 1/7’ Septieme with a 1904 Hutchings-Votey 8’ Gamba.

A multi-level solid-state combination action was installed in 1993. The manual keyboards were reconditioned in 2003 with new natural coverings, cloth bushings, and electrical contacts and rewired with PVC-jacketed cables. Two years later, Andover replaced the pneumatic drawknob and tilting tablet units with modern solenoid units, rebuilt the right stop jamb to match the left jamb, installed new oblique drawknobs with inset labels, and revised the stop layout to accommodate some future additions.

Though best known for organ recitals, the Music Hall has other ongoing programs. Since 1975, it has annually awarded music scholarships to graduating high school seniors from the Greater Merrimack Valley who will major in a music-related field at college. The Hall hosts the Methuen Young Peoples Theatre. Through this summer program, started in 1985, children from grade 4 through high school rehearse a full-scale Gilbert & Sullivan operetta, which they perform in the Hall in early September. In 2019, a piano concert series was started to showcase the 1957 Steinway Model D Concert Grand, received through a recent bequest. All the hall’s activities and events are planned and overseen by its all-volunteer Board of Trustees.

In May 2006, the Hall suffered its biggest challenge. An unusually heavy spring rainfall resulted in widespread flooding in New England during the Mother’s Day weekend. The adjacent Spicket River overran its banks, surrounding the Music Hall and flooding the basement with five feet of water. The waters eventually receded, and the basement was pumped out. But nearly everything touched by the water had to be replaced. Fortunately, the large Spencer organ blower and its 7.5 HP motor, which were partially submerged, were disassembled, drained, dried out, and returned to service with only the first summer recital being cancelled. The basement was rebuilt, with new walls, restrooms, and a new green room for performers.

In 2009, several events were held to celebrate the centennial of the Hall’s dedication. On May 9th, the Harvard Musical Association, which had helped raise the funds to commission the Great Organ for the Boston Music Hall, held a gala recreation of the organ’s 1863 inaugural concert and festivities. And on September 25-27, several concerts and a formal dinner marked the centennial of the Hall’s dedication.

The Hall’s next set of challenges occurred in 2020. On January 2nd, Edward J. Sampson, who had served as Board president since 1976 (except for a 1985-1987 hiatus), died after a lengthy illness. The Board held a strategic planning session, led by a management consultant, and elected an Interim President. Then, in April 2020, all businesses and concert venues were ordered to close because of the Covid-19 pandemic.

Under the direction of Interim President Chad P. Dow, the Board investigated live streaming the 2020 programs, in hopes of keeping the season alive. After consulting with several technically savvy friends of the Hall, the Board purchased the necessary equipment and established a YouTube channel. An all-volunteer staff produced and live streamed the entire scheduled season. This included the 15-week summer recital series, the Fall Scholarship Fund recital, the annual Merry Music Hall Christmas Concert, and several other events. As a result, the Music Hall acquired over 1,000 subscribers on its YouTube channel and had viewers from all over the world.

During the spring of 2021, thanks to the generosity of a friend of the Hall, the organ received some much-needed internal cleaning and all the flue ranks were carefully re-regulated. A humidification system for the organ is presently being installed. This will allow the hall to be heated for winter programs, without drying out and damaging the organ’s delicate wooden parts.

As the 2021 season begins, the Hall remains closed to the public and is presenting its summer recitals online. It is hoped that if conditions improve and regulations permit, the fall and Christmas programs might be opened to the public. Meanwhile, the summer series can be viewed live each Wednesday night at 7:30 EDT, or anytime therafter, HERE. These programs will be free. The Music Hall is grateful to its sponsors, patrons, and friends, whose generous support enables it to continue its programs. Financial contributions, which are tax-deductible to the extent allowed by IRS regulations, can be made via the PayPal link on the Hall Website or by mailing a check to: Methuen Memorial Music Hall, Inc., Post Office Box 463, Methuen, Massachusetts 01844-0463

The Great Organ seems to have nine lives. Thanks to its karma, or its caretakers, or a combination of both, it has survived many adversities. During its sea voyage to Boston, it survived a gale, and ran an ineffective Confederate blockade.[19] William Grover saved and stored it when it was evicted. Edward Searles built it a sumptuous new home. Ernest Skinner revived interest in it. Methuen firefighters saved it from flames. A group of Methuen citizens acquired and rehabilitated it. Live streaming rescued it from the oblivion of pandemic isolation. Having eluded shipwreck, fire, flood, and a Covid lockdown, the Great Organ continues to make music and history. And the Methuen Memorial Music Hall corporation proudly celebrates 75 years of bringing music to Methuen, as it begins a new era of bringing music from Methuen to the World, through its online presence.

Matthew M. Bellocchio is President of the of the Methuen Memorial Music Hall, Inc., where he has served as a Trustee since 2017. A member of the Andover Organ Company management team since 2003, with over 50 years of organbuilding experience, Bellocchio also served as President of the American Institute of Organbuilders (2012-2015). He has authored many articles on pipe organ history and technology published in national and international organ journals and co-chaired the 2005 OHS Convention.

[1] San Francisco Examiner August 18, 1892
[2] James Lewis, Mr. Searles and the Organ (Richmond: OHS Press, 2010), 83-85
[3]Henry M. Dunham, The Life of a Musician (New York: Richmond Borough Publishing, 1931), 34-35.
[4] William Morgan, The Almighty Wall: The Architecture of Henry Vaughan,( MIT Press, Cambridge 1983), 148.
[5] James Lewis, Mr. Searles and the Organ (Richmond: OHS Press, 2010), 4
[6] Harry Douglas, Catalogue of the Library of Edward Francis Searles: Kellog Terrace, Great Barrington, Massachusetts (Methuen, Mass. 1897)
[7] Fremmer, Ray; Ellison, Andrew M.; DeLage, Robert, The life story of Edward F. Searles: from the unabridged hand-written manuscript of 1948 p. 28. Collection, Nevins Memorial Library, HERE.
[8] James E. Treat, “Old Boston Music Hall,” Organist’s Journal (June 1896)
[9] The Great Organ. Serlo Organ Hall. Methuen, Mass. (Methuen: Methuen Organ Co., 1909), 11.
[10] Treat, op. cit.
[11] Henry M. Dunham, The Life of a Musician (New York: Richmond Borough Publishing, 1931), 33.
[12] “Who’s Who Among the Organists of America,” The Diapason 23, no.6 (May 1932): 30-31.
[13] Dorothy J. Holden, The Life and Work of Ernest M. Skinner (Richmond: The Organ Historical Society, 1985), 147-155
[14] “$200,000 Methuen Deal Sells Serlo Organ, Factory, House,” Lawrence Telegraph (February 4, 1931)
[15] Dorothy J. Holden, The Life and Work of Ernest M. Skinner (Richmond: The Organ Historical Society, 1985), 147-155
[16] Lawrence Tribune, March 29, 1946
[17] “Two Concerts Attract 1,000 at Serlo Hall,” Lawrence Evening Tribune (June 5, 1946).
[18] Methuen Transcript, June 7, 1946
[19] Barbara Owen, The Great Organ at Methuen (Richmond: Organ Historical Society, 2011), 42


5 Comments [leave a civil comment (others will be removed) and please disclose relevant affiliations]

  1. Brilliant, riveting and most enlightening history! However, with the many amendments and alterations the organ has sustained, I couldn’t help thinking of the philosophical conundrum of Grandfather’s Axe: the handle’s been replaced five times and the head twice–is it still Grandfather’s axe?

    Comment by Vance Koven — May 15, 2021 at 11:16 am

  2. Certainly every bit of the Herter-made case is original. And then I would argue that half of the current pipe work, as measured by weight, was built by Walcker.

    Comment by Lee Eiseman — May 15, 2021 at 2:41 pm

  3. Wonderful to have this history in a concise, documented, superbly written form. There is no experience quite like spelunking through the cavernous workings of this storied instrument, and seeing at first hand the free-reed pedal stop, the miniature-trumpet-bell-shaped pearwood reed resonators and other curiosities. My father, Charles Fisk, owner of the Andover Organ Company after Tom Byers, used to say that Skinner had used the Methuen organ as a quarry, taking various stops out of it for use in other instruments, in some cases replacing them with stops of his own. From Matthew Bellocchio’s less fanciful account it appears this may happily have been an exaggeration.

    Comment by Josiah Fisk — May 16, 2021 at 9:40 am

  4. There is some truth to Charles Fisk’s story. A letter reprinted in Charles Callahan’s book, “The American Classic Organ, A History in Letters” (Richmond; The Organ Historical Society, 1990), p.128, indicates that the National Cathedral treasurer sent Skinner a $6,500 check “to cover the cost of the Methuen pipes which you so kindly offered to sell to the Cathedral.” However, Jonathan Ambrosino’s research in the Cathedral archives found that the money was returned, and the pipes not purchased. G. Donald Harrison’s survey notes indicate that thirteen stops were entirely missing and the bass octaves of some 16’ and 8’ stops were also missing. We may never know what happened to these pipes which, according to William King Covell’s 1929 photographs, were in the organ before Skinner bought the property.

    Comment by Matthew Bellocchio — May 17, 2021 at 2:05 pm

  5. Matthew, thank you indeed for that clarification, which, like your article itself, is as informative and well-documented as it is entertaining.

    Comment by Josiah Fisk — May 18, 2021 at 5:02 pm

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