George Eastman

History of the Eastman House Aeolian Pipe Organ

Would you have imagined a music synthesizer mimicking the grand tones of a full orchestra with surround-sound capability in 1918? George Eastman did, and thirteen years after his mansion was built, he made it happen with the installation of a second organ chamber that complemented the conservatory’s original Aeolian organ.

That north organ chamber was destroyed in a fire just before George Eastman House opened as a museum in 1949. Yet today, thanks to a generous donation by Dr. Richard Zipf, museum staff and a team of talented volunteers have worked with Parsons Pipe Organ Company of Canandaigua to bring an organ chamber back to the second floor of the mansion, replicating what Mr. Eastman created nearly a century ago.

The project began in fall 2012 with Dr. Zipf’s donation of an organ closely matching Eastman’s north organ—its serial number is close in the manufacturer’s sequence to the original. The organ had been installed in Dr. Zipf’s home in California and needed to be painstakingly disassembled with each part labeled and carefully packed for the trip to western New York.

Work on the organ happened at two locations simultaneously. Off-site at the Parson’s Pipe Organ’s facility, the structure that supports the organ pipes was built and the pipes fit into it. At Eastman House, the second-floor room that houses the organ was prepared and the motor that powers the pipes installed. The hundreds of miles of wiring and 132 Voice Control Tablets that connect the north and south organ chambers had to be diagrammed and reconnected like a massive electronic jigsaw puzzle.

In Mr. Eastman’s time, the organ had only one console—the one in the first-floor conservatory—that was used to play both north and south chambers. Visitors to the museum will notice that there is an additional console on the second floor. The donation from Dr. Zipf included this second console, which has been installed to enable the playing of the north chamber alone.

The reinstallation of the north organ chamber has been highly anticipated by the music community. The dual organ will provide visitors the opportunity to experience organ performances like few others in the world.

“It’s very exciting to know that the George Eastman House organ will be returned to the monumental size and scope that Mr. Eastman intended,” said David Higgs, Chair of the Department of Organ and Historical Keyboards at the Eastman School of Music. “This project fits perfectly with the ambitious goals of the Eastman Rochester Organ Initiative (EROI) to bring to Rochester an unparalleled collection of pipe organs of the major national and historical styles. It represents an important aspect of the role of great music in American life.”

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