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Surround sound returns to Eastman House with new Aeolian organ

Eastman’s house again boasts the world’s largest residential pipe organ

Rochester, N.Y., August 16, 2013—George Eastman’s house is once again home to the world’s largest residential pipe organ. A team of volunteers alongside Parsons Pipe Organ Builders—the same family and company that serviced Eastman’s pipe organ decades ago—completed the reinstallation of the north organ in July with the support of Dr. Richard Zipf. The interesting tale of how the new organ made its way to Rochester will conclude with the first public concerts the weekend of September 21 and 22.

“We have successfully brought organ music back to Mr. Eastman’s home the way he intended it to be, as a direct result of the generous support from Dr. Zipf through his donation and funding of the north organ restoration project,” said Bruce Barnes, Ron and Donna Fielding Director of George Eastman House. “We are also thankful for the continued dedication to the project from our volunteers and staff, and are thrilled to be able to share Mr. Eastman’s musical vision with the public in September.”

The new Aeolian organ totals 106 ranks and more than 6,000 pipes. While Eastman originally had 132 ranks, the organ has been operating for more than 50 years with fewer than half. When the 50-room residence was being converted to a museum in the late 1940s, a fire in the north organ chamber destroyed many of the pipes inside. As a result, certain musical instrument sounds have not been heard for more than 60 years, including the oboe, violin, and flute, but now visitors will once again hear organ music with Eastman’s original surround-sound design.

“Because of its unique sound quality and design, this is the Rolls Royce of the organ world, and the historical significance of this organ is great,“ said Joe Blackburn, Eastman House volunteer organist, who is a key member of the volunteer team orchestrating the restoration project. “There was always constant music heard at Eastman’s house and he wanted his organ to sound just like an orchestra.” 

The new north organ and pipes, a generous donation from Dr. Richard Zipf from Sacramento, Calif., were transported across the country in April 2012 and housed for a year for servicing and assembling at Parsons Pipe Organ Builders in Canandaigua, NY. The family business is the same company that serviced the house pipe organ for George Eastman himself, decades ago.

“Eastman’s Aeolian pipe organ was the largest musical instrument ever installed in a home,” Blackburn said. “Eastman was very involved with the creation and installation of his organ, and centered his house around the placement of it—creating surround sound in his home.”

The Organ’s Cross-Country Journey

So how did the Aeolian organ that was thousands of miles away make its way to George Eastman House? Blackburn saw an ad on the blog site Mechanical Music Digest. The ad was placed by Zipf for an organ of Eastman’s era, which Zipf had spent a large sum of money and amount of time restoring.

“I had been trying to find a new home for my Aeolian 1345 for a few years and after a few attempts to find an interested party through listings in Mechanical Music Digest, I was contacted by Joe Blackburn,” said Dr. Richard Zipf. “The more I learned about George Eastman House, its history and its mission, the more enthused I became about selecting it as my organ’s new home.”

Zipf decided not only to donate the ranks and pipes to Eastman House, but also to fund the removal of the organ from his home, transportation across the country, and the reinstallation at Eastman House. Zipf plans to travel to Rochester in September for the debut concerts.

The Parsons Legacy

George Eastman hired the Parsons Pipe Organ Builders in 1919 to service his Aeolian 1416 pipe organ. Bryant Parsons Jr., now in his 90s, has memories of accompanying his father to Eastman’s home to service the organ. The service calls usually took place on Mondays. The museum continues both of these traditions today. Parsons is the company that has annually tuned and repaired the south organ on Mondays when the museum is closed to the public. 

Today the company continues to be a family affair with Richard and Calvin Parsons taking the lead. Ellen, Matt, Tim, Alex, and many others were part of a large crew that designed, transported, reinstalled and tuned the myriad of metal and wood pipes that make up the new north organ at Eastman House. 

“Having a role in the process of returning George Eastman’s house organ to its original splendor has been a wonderful opportunity for our company,” said Richard Parsons, president, Parsons Pipe Organ Builders. “Converting the organ chamber to its original purpose to house an organ designed for another mansion was not without its challenges.  All organs have a way of teaching us something about the past and the people who shaped it, and this was certainly no exception.  We appreciate the opportunity to collaborate with the staff and volunteers at George Eastman House and to help with this important part of Rochester’s history.”

George Eastman and Aeolian

Aeolian starting making pipe organs in 1899, and the company went bankrupt in 1932, the same year Eastman died, and no more organs were made. During Eastman’s time, there were few other ways to have music in your home.

“Eastman did not want his pipe organ to sound like ‘church music,’ but more like a marching band,” Blackburn said. “He wanted his flute to sound like a modern flute, oboe to sound like an orchestra oboe, and strings to be the most important sound on the organ, just like an orchestra,” Blackburn said, noting that of the original 132 ranks, 49 were strings.

Eastman had an organist on staff at his home and descended the stairs each morning to live organ music. Beginning in the 1920s, WHAM radio station would broadcast organ performances nationally at Christmas time and during the Easter season from Eastman’s home. In addition, famous opera singers from the Met performed at the house, with accompaniment on the pipe organ.

When Blackburn began playing the organ at Eastman House he quickly realized repair was needed and many of the sounds were missing. “I tried to play Jingle Bells and I couldn’t,” he said. Blackburn soon after joined a volunteer team that assisted Parsons with a seven-week project to fix urgent needs, funded by proceeds from the Eastman House’s annual gingerbread house exhibition, Sweet Creations.

The Volunteer Team

Organist and long-time Eastman House volunteer Joe Blackburn is one of a very dedicated and loyal crew of volunteers working to make the Aeolian organ at George Eastman House fully functional once again. Richard Butts, Dick Eastman, Sue Godshall, Steve Kelly, Arvid Lakeberg, and Jeff Machielle have spent countless hours bringing the north organ back to life.

“It will be wonderful to finally have the organ sounding like Eastman intended, by restoring surround sound the way he enjoyed it in his home,” said Kathy Connor, curator of the George Eastman Legacy Collection. “We could not pass up this generous offer to make this right by George Eastman, who designed this organ for his own personal enjoyment and pleasure and continually worked to perfect it.”

The First Concerts: Sept. 21 and 22

A benefit concert to commemorate the Eastman House Aeolian Organ Renewal Project will be held on Saturday, September 21, and will be hosted by the Eastman House Council. The event begins at 7 p.m. with tours available of the north organ chamber and a screening of a short documentary about the north organ’s journey from California and its reinstallation at George Eastman House. The concert will begin at 8 p.m., followed by a champagne and dessert reception. Tickets are $75 and will go on sale beginning August 15 at eastmanhouse.org/pipeorgan or (585) 271-3361 ext. 249.

The first public performances of the new north organ will begin on Sunday, September 22. Recitals by various organists will take place on the hour from noon to 4 p.m., and are included with museum admission.

About Parsons Pipe Organ Builders

The staff at Parsons is dedicated to preserving historic instruments and to providing new instruments that will define a lasting musical heritage for future generations.  They work throughout the United States with universities, churches, art galleries, museums, and individuals to maintain, enrich, and create pipe organs of tonal distinction. They welcome projects that are unique and diverse, embracing new challenges; always working to blend the wisdom and traditions of the past with modern practices. For more information about Parsons Pipe Organ Builders, visit www.parsonsorgans.com.

About George Eastman House

George Eastman House holds unparalleled collections, totaling more than four million objects, of photographs, motion pictures, cameras and technology, and photographically illustrated books. Established as an independent non-profit institution in 1947, it is the world’s oldest photography museum and third largest film archive in the United States. The museum is in Rochester, N.Y. and includes the National Historic Landmark house and gardens of George Eastman, the philanthropist and father of popular photography and motion picture film. Learn more at eastmanhouse.org.


Attn. Media

documentary chronicling the north organ restoration project will be screened at the September 21 benefit concert. A trailer for the documentary can be viewed here: http://www.youtube.com/watch?feature=player_embedded&v=kapqcw3sjvY

Images from the project can be downloaded and for press materials through the links below: