People & Places

Historic Brucemore Skinner pipe organ sent for restoration

$350,000 project to take about one year

CEDAR RAPIDS — Sounds from the Skinner Pipe Organ, Opus 754, once filled Brucemore mansion, but in recent years music quality has lagged and the instrument would only be played around the holiday.

“It was playable, but not concert quality,” said David Janssen, executive director of Brucemore, 2160 Linden Dr. SE.

The playing console was stationed in the main entryway, but the dozens of wood, lead, zinc and tin pipes of various sizes stood in the organ loft on the third floor, in a space that was once a bedroom. It has been one of the signature pieces of Brucemore, he said.

Last week, Janssen watched a JL Weiler, an organ restoration company, pack up the pipes and console and load it into a moving truck destined for Chicago. The organ had never been updated in its lifetime, and it was intended to get a “tune up” every 50 years or so, Janssen said.

“Take care of our piece,” Janssen cautioned as they parted ways. “It’s a lot like taking a child to college. You’re happy but a little nervous.”

Jeff Weiler, president of JL Weiler, already completed the first phase of restoration, which included updating the massive blower that brings the pipes to life and a binary computer that allows the console to communicate with the pipes.

This next phase is much larger in scope and will take about a year to complete, he said. The goal is to have it finished by the holiday season of 2018.

“We will return the full functionality and full voice to an instrument my grandparents would have heard new,” Weiler said.

Weiler said pipe restoration work is detailed and time consuming. The pipes will be cleaned individually, and the console will be taken apart so all the perishable internal material, such as membranes and felt can be replaced, Weiler said.

“What makes this exciting for a restorer is it is so intact,” he said. “It is completely untouched.”

Because the piece hasn’t been altered since being built into the home, it should be fascinating work because they will have to tap into the minds of the artisans who built it by researching their thinking and processes.

Irene Douglas commissioned the instrument to be custom in the 1885-built mansion by the Skinner Organ Co. of Boston for $13,000 in 1929, or about $186,000 in today’s dollars. It’s one of the few residential Skinner organs left, Janssen said.

It is hardly the only highlight in Brucemore, but it is one of the most significant, Janssen said. It’s also the most significant addition to the home after it was built, he said

“It’s absolutely a unique instrument that was custom installed for this space,” he said.

The total cost of the project is about $350,000, Janssen said noting the Joseph Bradley Foundation of Pennsylvania and Hall-Perrine Foundation of Cedar Rapids are top contributors. He said they are still about $50,000 short of their fundraising goal.

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