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Pipe organ languishes in lockdown

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  • Pipe organ languishes in lockdown

    Three men leading effort to restore forgotten musical treasure at state prison
    By LEIGH HORNBECK, Staff writer

    Thursday, March 30, 2006
    WILTON -- A dusty, broken pipe organ, made secret by the passage of time and disuse, sits inside the chapel at the Mount McGregor Correctional Facility.
    The prison chaplain, a volunteer teacher and a salesman from the Austin Organ Company -- the company that made the instrument in 1916 -- are working together to raise $13,500 to fix the organ.


    Its rediscovery led to a citation from the Organ Historical Society, identifying the instrument as historic -- similar to recognition by the National Register of Historic Places.

    Gordon Boyd, who teaches at the prison and sings baritone with the Bethesda Episcopal Church choir in Saratoga Springs, is leading the effort to raise money. Boyd says $20,000 would be enough to pay for future maintenance and to pay musicians to perform. Part of that amount has been raised.

    "The organ becomes a focal point for people who care about an instrument like this in antique, vintage condition and people who care about inmates' exposure to music," Boyd said.

    He worked with prison chaplain Joe Caron to start the fundraising, which required approval from Gov. George Pataki because the money will be a gift to the state.

    Money is far too tight at Mount McGregor, which has beds for 545 medium-security and 300 minimum-security inmates, to pay for repairing the organ, the head of the prison said.

    "Even in the best of times, the expense is too much," said Superintendent Harold McKinney.

    Boyd, whose energy consulting firm EnergyNext Inc. has offices in Franklin Square, raised $8,000 at his 60th birthday party in February. He asked guests to contribute to the fund instead of bringing gifts.

    The organ was installed and the chapel built 90 years ago when Mount McGregor was a tuberculosis sanitarium owned by Metropolitan Life Co. Boyd, who has performed in the chapel with his choir, accompanied by a portable electric organ, said the vaulted ceiling offers wonderful acoustics. A painting of the Virgin Mary and Jesus, flanked by cello- and violin-playing cherubs, decorates the back wall of the altar.

    Caron said the chapel is seeing more use over the past year from faith communities, including Protestants, Catholics, Jews, Rastafarians, the Nation of Islam and a Native American group.

    The organ was the 690th built by Austin Organs of Hartford, Conn. Its construction sets it apart, said salesman Doug Campbell. Instead of a breadbox-sized chamber used to push air into the pipes, this organ's chamber is 12 feet long and 6 feet high.

    The instrument is easier to repair, Campbell said, because a technician can stand inside and watch the organ operate.

    The air chamber is lined with 146 trackers -- slender pieces of poplar pulled by small bellows. When the organist pushes a key or a pedal, bellows operated by electricity pull one of the trackers, which opens a valve and allows air into a pipe.

    As the New York representative for Austin Organs, Campbell said he tried to track down all of the company's instruments. Information on the McGregor organ was scarce -- the last recorded visit for maintenance was in 1956, when the compound surrounding the chapel was a veterans camp. The state Division of Veterans Affairs didn't know about the organ, Campbell said, until he visited an inmate at the prison in fall 2005 and made the connection.

    The company says the organ is in relatively good shape and has all its original parts, Campbell said. Most of the work is basic maintenance left undone for 50 years.

    The biggest part of the job will be putting new leather on the giant bellows that maintains air pressure in the organ.

    It is the ninth Austin organ to receive historical designation from the Organ Historical Society, which will gather for a June convention in Saratoga Springs. State corrections officials plan to invite members to Mount McGregor for a concert.

    Hornbeck can be reached at 581-8438 or by e-mail at [email protected].

    How to help

    Contributions may be made to the Mount McGregor Organ Fund, c/o Gordon Boyd, 99 State St., Saratoga Springs, NY 12866. Information is posted at http://www.mtmcgregor

  • #2
    Re: Pipe organ languishes in lockdown

    Wow, really cool. I like how the article refers to the Universal Wind Chest as if it was the newest innovation and the coolest thing ever. In reality, it's one of the major features of Austins if I'm not mistaken. I didn't know Austin made trackers, though. Both of the Austins in my area are electro-pneumatic.

    Boy, if I ever get in trouble with the law, I know where I want to be held. Very cool!


    • #3
      Re: Pipe organ languishes in lockdown

      The term "tracker" in this case is a bit misleading. The Austin cited is an EP instrument. The tracker referred to is the trace-rod which extends from the pneumatic unit. If you can get your hand on a copy of "The Contemporary AMerican Organ" by Wm. H. Barnes, there is is fairly decent drawing of an Austin action.


      • #4
        Re: Pipe organ languishes in lockdown

        It isn't a tracker. Austin used (misued?) the term to describe the link 'rod' that runs transversely from the specific note pneumatic across the width of the chest just under the top. A rather clever linkage activated by the stop control pneumatic on the long end of the chest engages a pin on the tracker which pivots the pipe valve open when a note is played. Even when all the stops are off, you can hear the hardware moving when you mash down a bunch of keys if you're close enough to the chest.

        They are very easy to work on and repair because all the mechanical components are readily accessable from inside, even with the air on. Anything that falls into the toeboard just drops out the valve onto the floor of the chest.

        William Barnes book, 'The Contemporary American Organ', has a excellent description of the mechanism.
        Rodgers 660 with additional analog rack sets (practice), 36D/C in digital conversion, Yamaha CVP-107


        • #5
          Re: Pipe organ languishes in lockdown

          Arrrgh! You beat me to it by seconds, Dan :-).
          Rodgers 660 with additional analog rack sets (practice), 36D/C in digital conversion, Yamaha CVP-107


          • #6
            Re: Pipe organ languishes in lockdown

            Aha, makes sense. Sounds very much like those Pitman chests my church's organ has.