The History of the Methuen Memorial Music Hall

ew 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.

n 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.

or 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.

The story of Edward Francis Searles and how he became financially capable of resurrecting the instrument is almost as fascinating as that of the organ itself.

e was born on July 4, 1841, in Methuen to Jesse Gould Searles (1805 – 1844) and Sarah Littlefield Searles. His father worked in a local cotton mill and operated a small farm. The family’s meager existence was further exacerbated in 1844, when Jesse Searles died, leaving Mrs. Searles to raise her two sons, Edward Francis, age 3, and Andrew Baxter, age 6, by herself. Edward worked in a local mill as early as age 12 and later worked as a stock boy in the Lawrence, Massachusetts, dry goods store of his aunt’s husband. He showed an early penchant toward art and music, and began taking piano lessons. He learned quickly and in a few years started earning a living by giving piano lessons in Methuen and Lawrence and in Salem, New Hampshire.

His artistic talents were further developed by organ lessons in Boston; a period in Bath and Gardiner, Maine, where he taught piano and organ, as well as worked as a carpenter’s apprentice; and by the study of architectural drawing at a Boston art school.

He secured a sales position with the Boston upholstery and interior decoration firm of Paul and Company. During his seven years with the company, he received numerous promotions and became a man of sizable income.

Searles then joined the prestigious interior decoration firm of Herter Brothers in New York; a company whose clientele included the most affluent people in the country. It is an interesting coincidence that it was Herter Brothers company years earlier that produced the final design and built the case of the Boston Music Hall Organ.

At Herter Brothers, he contributed to the design of several mansions, including those of the Vanderbilt family on Fifth Avenue in New York. His work won the admiration and approval of both his employers and their clients. As a result, the commissions from these projects gained Searles considerable wealth.

By 1881, his financial independence allowed him to take a trip to England and work only occasionally. A particularly troublesome bout with rheumatism led him to plan a trip to the warmer climate of California. Although the trip was principally for his health, he also agreed to visit several of Herter Brothers’ West Coast clients. This aspect of his California trip was to prove extremely fortunate for Searles.

Despite the difference in age (she was twenty-two years older than he), a romantic relationship evolved and eventually Mrs. Hopkins proposed. In November, 1887, they were married in Trinity Chapel, New York.

The couple shared an interest in architecture and interior decoration, and lived happily together until her death in July, 1891.

Her entire estate was left to her husband, with the result that at age fifty, Searles’ personal wealth included over twenty-one million dollars and vast real estate holdings in New York, San Francisco, Great Barrington and Methuen.

During the remainder of his life, Searles satisfied his ardent love for the arts by building mansions and collecting art treasures. He acquired acres of land surrounding his birthplace in Methuen, and there built a huge castle-like estate encircled by miles of granite walls.

n 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.

enry Vaughan was born in Cheshire, England. His family moved to Dollar in Clackmannanshire, Scotland, during his childhood. He received his education at Dollar Academy and won a bronze medal in art there in 1863. He apprenticed with the English Gothic church architect George Frederick Bodley (1827 – 1907) and became head draftsman of the firm of Bodley and Garner. In 1881, Vaughan emigrated to Boston where he established an office in Pemberton Square. His first American commission was for the Chapel of the Society of St. Margaret in Boston. Vaughan quickly became the favored designer of the Anglo-Catholic clergy.

Included among Vaughan’s best known works are the National Cathedral (Cathedral of St. Peter and St. Paul) in Washington, D.C.; three chapels (St. Boniface, St. James and St. Ansgar) at the Cathedral of St. john the Divine in New York; and St. John’s Chapel, Groton School, Groton, Massachusetts.

rom the mid-1880’s until his death in Newton Center, Massachusetts, Vaughan was active in producing designs commissioned by Edward F. Searles. A partial list of the properties resulting from this collaboration includes: schools, churches, Pine Lodge Mansion and the Serlo Organ Hall in Methuen; Stillwater Manor in Salem, and Stanton Harcourt Castle in Windham, New Hampshire; Dream House on Block Island in Rhode Island; and the Mary Francis Searles Science Building at Bowdoin College in Brunswick, Maine.

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.

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.

he 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.

One element of the interior decoration of the building is particularly noteworthy. It is the “Aurora” sculpture on the left transept wall.

dward 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.

rnest 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. Another 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.

he 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”.

Originally built for the Boston Music Hall by E.F. Walcker and Company Ludwigsburg, Wurttember, Germany, Opus 200, February 1857 – October 1863.
Design and Construction Supervision: Eberhard Friedrich Walcker (1794 – 1872). Installation Supervision: Friedrich Walcker (1829 – 1895)
Removed from the Boston Music Hall and crated by George S. Hutchings (Company) Boston, Massachusetts 1884.
Supervision: George Sherburn Hutchings (1835 – 1913), President.
Rebuilt and erected in Serlo Organ Hall, Methuen by The Methuen Organ Company, Methuen, Massachusetts, 1905 – 1909.
Supervision: John M. Ingraham (1866 – ?).
Several complete ranks, including Great chorus reeds, as well as metal pass pipes of several ranks removed by The Ernest M. Skinner and Son Company, Methuen, Massachusetts, 1931 – 1943.
Supervision: Ernest M. Skinner (1866 – 1960), President.
Rebuilt by the Æolian-Skinner Organ Company, Inc., Boston, Massachusetts Opus 1103 1946-1947.
Supervision: G. (George) Donald Harrison (1889 – 1956), President and Tonal Director.
New blower installed by Andover Organ Company, Inc., Methuen, Massachusetts,1966.
Supervision: Leo E. Constantineau (1925 – 1979), President.
New Great chorus reeds installed by Andover Organ Company, Inc., Methuen, Massachusetts, 1970 – 1971.
Supervision: Robert J. Reich, Tonal Director.

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