An American beauty: ‘Extraordinary’ Mercy Grove pipe organ gets 450 visitors on Tuesday tour
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An American beauty: ‘Extraordinary’ Mercy Grove pipe organ gets 450 visitors on Tuesday tour

Aug 1, 2018

The organ pipes hummed and keys danced Tuesday as around 450 people from every corner of United States and Canada, and across the globe came, to Mercy Grove to see the Aeolian pipe organ #1559.

A three-manual instrument — meaning it has three keyboards — the classic organ was purchased in 1927 for $27,800. At that time in history, organs were a prestigious item to have in the home, a sign of wealth and opulence.

Tuesday was the first time Le Roy was a stop on the Organ Historical Society’s annual convention tour, where hundreds of people from around the world travel to see organs in different settings. Right before coming to Le Roy, they had stopped in Caledonia to visit the E. & G.G. Hook & Hastings Organ, Op. 829 (II/16), originally built for the Andover Theological Seminary in Andover, Mass.

“Every organ is specially built for the acoustics of the location at the point they’re being installed. So this has a ceiling that’s so high, (with) walls that have plaster and wood and the floor is marble,” explained Cynthia Howk, architectural research coordinator for the Landmark Society of Western New York, knocking on Mercy Grove’s wooden walls. “So it makes a really lively acoustics, except if you put a lot of people here. So this was designed specifically for this house.”

Mercy Grove was built in 1927 by Donald Woodward, the youngest son of Orator Woodward, the owner of Jell-O. Since then it has gone through several transformations from a private residence, to a residential medical facility for children, to a retreat house for the Sister of Mercy. Recently it has been purchased by Jim and Beth Gombrone, and it serves as a setting for special events, weddings and conferences.

Two years ago, the Gombrones wondered if the organ could be played and contacted the Parson’s Organ Restoration Company in Bristol. After a survey was conducted and rudimentary repairs were made, it was determined it could be restored.

Michael Barone, a trained musician and organist and host of the only national organ broadcast, said before radios and recordings, if people wanted music in their homes they invited musicians to play for them or installed instruments with a player console — which used music rolls, creating the sound automatically. Hundreds of Aeolian organs were made, but the company went out of business in the early 1930s with the advent of the stock market crash and the Great Depression. After the war, there wasn’t a need for player consoles with radios, and Barone said there are only dozens of organs like the one in Mercy Grove left in their original locations.

“It used to be every rich person had one. Often when the family had a big house, the next generation moved off and lived somewhere else. The old folks died, the residence wasn’t used by the family anymore and got converted into apartments, and the organ got removed,” he said. “For something that was as expensive and complicated and intriguing as these domestic organs were, it’s sad they were treated with such cavalierly.”

Nathan Laube, co-chair of the 2018 OHS convention, said the Mercy Grove organ is extraordinary as it’s very rare that domestic organs are absolutely preserved like it is. As a result it’s an ideal candidate for restoration — which has been slowly happening over the last couple years.

“(The Aeolian pipe organ #1559) is spectacular,” he said. “It’s like finding a treasure chest that’s been hidden away.”

The Mercygrove organ has a complete and elaborate orchestra — completely different from a church organ. During their height between the 1900s and 1930s, organs were the cutting edge of technology and because they were so complicated, the organs were expensive to maintain and operate. They were like the original computer system in pushing the limits of technology.

“(Organs) somehow reconciled art and industry, that’s probably the best way to put it,” he said.

By Mallory Diefenbach, Batavia Daily News

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