Eastman House organ undergoes grand restoration

11:38 PM, Aug 09, 2013

A donated Aeolian pipe organ is in it's last week of installation and tuning at the George Eastman House on July 2, 2013 in Rochester. Calvin Parsons with Parsons Pipe Organ Builders tunes the pipe organ that's been installed on the north side of the conservatory. Parsons is Vice President and Director Field Services of his family's business located in Bristol. (TINA YEE/staff photographer)/


Written By Jeff Spevak | Staff writer

If you go

What: The pipe organ at the George Eastman House, 900 East Ave.
Hearing the organ: The restored organ will be debuted to the public starting at noon Sept. 22, and played on the hour until the museum closes at 5 p.m. Concerts will be performed on the organ at 3 p.m. on the first Sunday of each month. In addition, the organ generally gets a quick workout near the end of museum hours.
Museum hours: 10 a.m. to 5 p.m. Monday through Saturday; 11 a.m. to 5 p.m. Sunday.
Museum admission: $12; $10 for ages 65 and older; $5 for students with ID.

Entertainment options for music enthusiasts were limited in 1905.

You could have live music,” says Joe Blackburn. “Or you could have an old Victrola thing with a horn. And that was music.”

Of course, for a man of means like George Eastman, Blackburn points out, there was one other option: a pipe organ, one so grand that, when played by your own professional organist, it could re-create the sound of an orchestra as you read one of your five daily newspapers while eating breakfast in your home’s lofty conservatory, beneath the head of a bull elephant mounted on a nearby wall. A pipe organ so technologically advanced that it could even play itself, as the great philanthropist of Rochester’s high culture drifted off to sleep at night.

Indeed, Eastman’s Rochester mansion was once home to the largest private-residence pipe organ in the world. Half of it was lost in a fire after his death, its salvaged remains drifting away piece by piece over the years. But now the restoration, virtually pipe for pipe as Eastman himself heard it, is almost complete, and will be ready for its public unveiling in September.

Only upon examining how the one organ is housed in two chambers — north and south — in rooms and closet-size spaces scattered throughout the three floors of the house, does it become apparent that Eastman designed his home at 900 East Ave. as a vast cabinet for his pipe organ.

As Blackburn, a music teacher and Eastman House museum volunteer, sits at the console to play, the relationship between the building and the organ is confirmed. From sighs to chest-rattling, foundation-shaking bellows, it is a marvel — music erupting from all corners of the house, descending on George Eastman’s conservatory.

Surround sound,” Blackburn says. “He invented it.”

The Colonial Revival mansion, its 50 rooms under construction from 1902 to 1905, was originally equipped with a 66-rank organ; “rank” refers to the number of sets of pipes, each rank producing notes of similar timbre and volume.

Pipe-organ whistles only blow at one volume, full volume,” Blackburn says. An arrangement of shades in front of the pipes tempers the cacophony. Consumed by organ envy, in 1918 Eastman doubled his instrument to 132 ranks. By contrast, even the largest of church pipe organs are generally 61 ranks.

Eastman bequeathed his home to the University of Rochester, which after a decade turned it over to a board of trustees for conversion into a photography museum. A 1949 fire, apparently accidentally started by workmen, delayed the museum’s opening for a few months. Efforts to snuff out the fire damaged the north organ, an Aeolian, Opus 1416, which had to be dismantled.

Water and pipe organs don’t go together,” Blackburn says.

For decades, the George Eastman House pipe organ existed at only 50 percent of its prime configuration. A couple of years ago, Blackburn discovered an organ for sale in California — an Aeolian, Opus 1345, virtually the same organ as the one lost since 1949.

But the matchmaking nearly didn’t come to pass because of the price tag: $347,729. Kathleen Connor, legacy curator at the Eastman house, has the number committed to memory: She repeats it, to the last dollar, several times last week while discussing the project.

I have many things that need to be fixed and repaired here,” she says. Packing up the organ, transporting it and retro-fitting it for the Eastman House so that the organ transplant wouldn’t be rejected, was not on the list.

That’s when the California owner stepped up to donate the Aeolian, Opus 1345. A wealthy eye surgeon with a distant tie to the area — Dr. Richard Zipf studied for a while at URMC — had bought the instrument from another California mansion.

Like Eastman, Zipf is not a musician. He simply has an interest in antique gadgets. When it became clear that the Eastman House could not afford the project, Zipf not only offered to donate it, but he agreed to pick up the tab of moving all 17,500 pounds of it to Rochester and installing the organ in its new home.

Parsons Pipe Organ Builders in Bristol started the work in mid-December of last year. When the cost sailed past the projected $347,729, Parsons assumed the overrun.

Now the George Eastman House pipe organ — restored to its status as the world’s largest pipe organ in a residence — joins a roster that makes Rochester the 1927 Yankees of organs. The heart of the lineup (the Yankees’ had Lou Gehrig, Babe Ruth and Tony Lazzeri) includes the Memorial Art Gallery’s Italian Baroque organ, built in Florence; the 1927, 68-rank organ in St. Paul’s Episcopal Church, where Eastman’s funeral was held; and the unbelievable Craighead-Saunders of Christ Church on East Avenue, a precise re-creation of a 237-year-old pipe organ in Vilnius, Lithuania.

The Eastman House operation went pretty much like any other organ transplant, with a complex array of connective tissues to be sorted out — in this case, electrical wires that carry signals to the pipes and chimes from the conservatory console.

The console, an early 20th-century version of the Starship Enterprise’s 23nd-century bridge navigation panels, is a bewildering array of buttons and switches — labeled trumpets, oboes, strings, vox humana and all the sounds of a full orchestra.

Technological advances came with time, primarily with the organ’s player-piano capabilities. A separate console at first could handle only one roll of a 10-minute piece. Blackburn calls it the equivalent of playing a 78 rpm record.

The addition of a new Concertola converted the instrument into a multi-CD player: 10 rolls at a time. The paper scrolls reveal the breadth of Eastman’s musical interests. Wagner, fox trots, “Rhapsody in Blue.”

Music was a ritual for Eastman. Each morning and evening, Eastman sat in his conservatory and listened to his pipe organ being played by one of three personal musicians whom he employed over the years. At breakfast, “If it was too loud, he’d rattle a newspaper,” Blackburn says. “That was the sign for the organist to play softer.”

Blackburn plays the organ virtually every day, usually late afternoons as the museum’s day draws to a close.

A pipe organ does not survive if it is not played,” he says. Following the grand reveal of the renovated instrument on Sept. 22, when it will be heard hourly starting at noon with paid admission to the museum, it’ll be played for the public on the first Sunday of each month.

A year after he added the second set of organ pipes, Eastman famously renovated the entire house by slicing it in half. An additional 9 feet and 4 inches was added to the center of the mansion, expanding the conservatory.

Connor is not convinced it was done for a reason other than what Eastman himself is known to have said at the time: That he wanted a larger room for parties. But she doesn’t completely dismiss Blackburn’s theory that the music-obsessed Eastman wanted to enhance his listening experience.

Put anything in a rectangle and it sounds better,” Blackburn says. Eastman surely knew that.

But Blackburn takes it further, pointing to a pillar that would have stood between a second-floor cabinet of ranks, blocking the sound from the first-floor table where Eastman ate breakfast and read his newspapers each morning.

Rather than move the table to a more-desirable position in his home, originally built for $300,000, Blackburn insists Eastman paid $750,000 to move the room.