Methuen Memorial Music Hall

E.F. Walker and Company, Opus 200, 1863           

Aeolian-Skinner Organ Company, Inc., Opus 1103, 1947          


Few organs thrown out of their original locations have landed as gracefully as Methuen's.  Installed in 1863 on the stage of the original Boston Music Hall, the newly founded Boston Symphony Orchestra began jostling for space around its feet by 1881.  In 1884 an instrument costing $60K was sold for $5K, removed to storage and sold again for $1.5K to its savior, Edward Francis Searles, thus becoming the largest house organ in history.  Searles commissioned the Anglo-Dutch style hall which served as his private music room from 1909 until his death in 1920 from Henry Vaughan, architect of the National Cathedral.  From thence the property passed through the hands of Ernest M. Skinner, whose workshop it was until his bankruptcy, to a civic organization that has operated it as a cultural center since 1946.  - Ross Wood

Photo by Len Levasseur

Photo by Len Levasseur

Few instruments in the history of American organ building have had as long or as distinguished a career as the Boston Music Hall Organ. The first concert organ in the country, it remains today one of the outstanding organs in America.

The Boston Music Hall was built in 1852 by the Boston Music Hall Association. Jabez Baxter Upham (1820 - 1902) was then president of the association. By profession a physician, this public-spirited citizen was a leader in the Boston musical life of his generation. Before the hall was even erected, he was determined that Boston should have an organ of the first rank, and it was by his persistent enthusiasm, effort, solicitation, speech-making and personal generosity that the instrument was built.

In 1856, Dr. Upham was authorized to go to Europe for the purpose of choosing a builder and signing a contract at a cost not to exceed $25,000. Four months later, on February, 20, 1857, after a meticulous study of the major European builders, he signed a contract with E.F. Walcker and Company of Ludwigsburg, Germany. It was expected that the organ would be completed in a year's time, but immediately there began a series of delays. Walcker's copy of the contract was lost and another had to be executed. The American Civil War broke out, driving building costs higher. More money had to be raised to cover the increased cost of the project.

In 1862, the organ was finally completed in the factory and approved by a commission which included the noted organ authority, Dr. Edward John Hopkins, Organist and Master of the Choristers at the Temple Church in London. The organ was shipped from Rotterdam aboard the Dutch brig "Presto". Contrary to its name, however, the ship was so delayed by adverse weather that the company with which the organ was insured began to think that the ship had foundered with her precious cargo. Nevertheless, the "Presto" finally arrived in Boston in March, 1863, and the installation began.

The organ case was the work of the Herter Brothers of New York and was an adaptation of a design originally drawn by Hammatt Billings. It was made of American black walnut. The display pipes of the organ case were made of burnished pure English tin. The case demonstrated that an organ may have architectural as well as musical significance. On November 2, 1863, the organ was inaugurated. The final cost was $60,000.

For twenty-one years the organ stood in the Boston Music Hall. During this time, Boston musical life underwent a change. The initial enthusiasm for "The Great Organ" waned. In 1881, the Boston Symphony Orchestra was founded. It now commanded the attention of the Boston music public just as the organ had done a generation before. The growing orchestra needed more stage space. The result was that in 1884, despite vigorous protest which extended to legal action, the organ was, as Dr. Upham indignantly wrote, "expelled" from the hall, and sold for $5,000 to William O. Grover. It was apparently Grover's intention to give it to the New England Conservatory Of Music, but when he died, it still lay immured in storage and was sold at auction in 1897 to settle his estate.

The highest bidder was Edward Francis Searles (1841–1920) of Methuen, Massachusetts, and the price was $1,500. Dr. Upham was jubilant at this prospective resurrection of the instrument and in 1901 drafted yet another speech, designed for the opening of a new concert hall for the organ, but he died in 1902, and the hall was not finished until 1909.

In 1899, Searles set about rebuilding the organ and providing a new home for it in Methuen. He commissioned Henry Vaughan (1845–1917) to design a concert hall for the express purpose of housing the organ in the visual and acoustical setting that he felt it deserved. The resulting structure, Serlo Organ Hall, located on the banks of the Spicket River, is probably the only instance in history in which a hall of such proportions and such magnificence has been built for the sole purpose of housing an organ.

The design, construction and decoration of Serlo Organ Hall consumed ten years. The exterior design of the hall is relatively simple, with very high and narrow proportions. Although a tall Italianate campanile and an elaborate gable with baroque volutes are featured, the style is principally Anglo-Dutch in character.

methuen memorial music hall

In contrast, the interior design, of English baroque style, is incredibly rich. The stylistic details and spatial arrangement are patterned after the work of Sir Christopher Wren (1632–1723); particularly his interior design of 1662–1687 at St. Stephen's Church in Walbrook, England.

The building follows the Latin cross type of floor plan. The organ stands in the chancel; the nave and transepts provide seating space for the audience. The walls, over three feet in thickness, contain air spaces which make the building nearly soundproof and also relatively impervious to extreme weather conditions. The floor is laid in marble squares, alternately reddish-brown and gray-in color. The lower walls, to a height of about ten feet, are finished in dark oak paneling; above that are panels of brocade which serve the double purpose of absorbing excessive reverberation and providing a contrasting texture to the plaster walls in which they are placed. The ceiling is an immense Roman barrel vault, executed in plaster with profuse classical detail. The vault appears to rest on a classic entablature, the cornice of which conceals indirect lighting. Roman Corinthian pilasters at the corners complete the classic vocabulary of the design. The hall is about sixty-five feet in height to the center of the vault; forty feet wide in the nave; seventy feet wide at the transepts; and slightly over one hundred feet in length. With a volume of somewhat over 300,000 cubic feet, the reverberation period of the hall, when empty, is about four seconds.

From 1905 to 1909, the organ was rebuilt by the Methuen Organ Company, a financial holding of Searles. Together with another of Searles' holdings, the United States Tubular Bell Company, the Methuen Organ Company occupied a wooden building on the north bank of the Spicket River, originally built as a woolen mill.

Most of the work of rebuilding the Boston Music Hall Organ is thought to have been done by John M. Ingraham (1866–?), an employee of the Methuen Organ Company. The reconstruction left the pipework and case relatively intact; the action and console were completely new. As originally built by Walcker, the organ utilized cone-valve (ventil) windchests with a tracker-pneumatic action. The console was integral with the case, being in the center niche beneath the bust of Johann Sebastian Bach. The new windchests were of the pallet-slider type, actuated by an electropneumatic mechanism from a detached console.

The organ, rebuilt and housed in a magnificent building, was used only for Mr. Searles' private entertainment. The public was not admitted to Serlo Organ Hall during his lifetime.

Edward F. Searles died in Methuen in 1920. Ownership of Serlo Organ Hall was bequeathed to his confidential secretary, Arthur Thomas Walker (1877–1927), as residuary legatee of the Searles will. Upon Mr. Walker's death in Windham, the property was bequeathed to his niece, Ina Cecil McEachran of Detroit. In 1930, Lillian Wightman Andrew (1882–1961), wife of a Methuen and Lawrence banker and businessman, Francis Martin Andrew (1880 - 1967), purchased a large portion of the Walker estate, including the organ hall.

Ernest M. Skinner (1866–1960), one of the most influential American organbuilders, acquired title to the hall and surrounding properties in 1931. During the ensuing years, he presented public performances of such choral works as Brahms' Requiem, the Bach B minor Mass and Handel's Messiah. In addition, recitals were given by such organ virtuosi of the day as Marcel Dupre (1886–1971 ), Lynnwood Farnam (1885–1930) and E. Power Biggs (1906–1977).

In 1936, he established the Ernest M. Skinner and Son Company, with his son Richmond H. Skinner as vice-president. The enterprise occupied the former Methuen Organ Company factory building which was joined to the hall. One of the most significant instruments constructed at this site was the huge organ built in 1937 and 1938 for the National Cathedral in Washington, D.C. (An interesting coincidence: the original architect of the National Cathedral was Henry Vaughan, who also designed the Serlo Organ Hall.) The company flourished for several years, and many fine instruments were built for clients throughout the country. However, Federal restrictions on the utilization of strategic metals due to the Second World War and the accompanying general business decline brought about worsening conditions for the firm. In August 1942, the company transferred all of its assets to Arthur T. Wasserman and Matthew Brown as trustees to protect itself from creditors. A land court decree in May 1943, empowered the Essex Savings Bank of Lawrence to sell the hall and factory building as properties covered by two mortgages: one given by Francis Martin Andrew and Lillian Wightman Andrew, and the other given by Richmond H. Skinner.

The wooden organ factory building was destroyed by a general alarm fire in June 1943. Fortunately, the conflagration was prevented from spreading to the adjoining organ hall building. Essex Savings Bank acquired title to the property at the mortgage foreclosure public auction in July 1943, for $55,000.

In May, 1946, eight area residents organized and filed the necessary papers with the Department of Corporations and Taxation of the Commonwealth of Massachusetts to form a charitable corporation under the name of Methuen Memorial Music Hall, Inc. The primary purpose for which the corporation was formed was to acquire, operate and manage the Serlo Organ Hall as a permanent cultural center.

The 1947 reconstruction, supervised by G. Donald Harrison, involved few mechanical changes. The Methuen Organ Company console was made movable and was modernized by the addition of a concave, radiating pedal board and of an adjustable combination action, which actuates the stopknobs and coupler tablets by remote control. But, the internal mechanism of the organ proper was left essentially unchanged. Tonally, the reconstruction was a comprehensive one. Certain thick-toned stops were deleted; the chorus reeds were removed from the Great; a new set of chorus reeds of the french trompette type was added to the Swell; the old unenclosed Choir division was converted into a dazzling Positiv; a chorus of baroque reeds was provided for the fourth manual division, formerly called Solo, now Choir; and the composition of the mixtures was radically changed. The Pedal was modified and augmented in keeping with these manual changes. The Æolian-Skinner reconstruction was performed for a contract price of $24,500.

Whereas the 1947 reconstruction removed the chorus reeds from the Great, the decision was made in 1970 to return this ensemble. Utilizing windchest space and stopknobs already available, the Andover Organ Company of Methuen installed chorus reeds of 16', 8', and 4' pitch. They are of German construction, of great power and brilliance, designed to contrast with the chorus reeds of the Swell and to climax the chorus of the entire organ. The organ in the Methuen Memorial Music Hall; with its rich foundations, shimmering strings, sparkling mixtures and brilliant reeds; provides seemingly endless resources for the interpretation of all periods of the organ literature. It remains today one of the most noble examples of the "King of Instruments". - text by Edward Sampson, from the Methuen Memorial Music Hall website