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After a year of restoration, Brucemore's pipe organ sings again

Barb Ritchie plays the organ at Brucemore in Cedar Rapids during a Music in the Mansion Holiday Tour on Thursday, December 6, 2018. (Cliff Jette/The Gazette)
Barb Ritchie plays the organ at Brucemore in Cedar Rapids during a Music in the Mansion Holiday Tour on Thursday, December 6, 2018. (Cliff Jette/The Gazette)
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For almost a year, the baroque tones of a Skinner Pipe Organ did not echo through the hallways of the Brucemore Mansion.

The historic instrument was taken to Chicago to get a tune up 35 years past due, and while it was a needed repair, the historic site’s staff felt its presence missing in the building.

“The mansion had lost its voice,” Brucemore Executive Director David Janssen said.

But over the past few weeks, the organ, now restored to near-new quality, was returned to the mansion for public performances. Throughout this month, the chorus of hundreds of singing pipes will echo once again through a metal grate on the highest floor and through the building again.

Irene Douglas, one of Brucemore’s former tenants, had the organ custom-built for the mansion in 1929 for $13,000, or just over $192,000 in today’s dollars. It is supposed to have repairs done every 50 years, but the renovations never came over the years and the sound became softer and more muddled. Some of the keys died out, and live performers had to come in earlier than usual before shows to figure out how to play around them, Brucemore Museum Program Manager Jessica Peel-Austin said.

JL Weiler, an organ restoration company in Chicago, packed up the instrument and its myriad pipes, pumps, switches and keys last October for a $350,000 restoration. Several pieces were worn down from the friction of contact over the years, and the individual circuits that routed the signals of the keys to the more than 700 pipes and the blower motor were resoldered by hand.

Peel-Austin said the restoration makes the organ more true to what it would have sounded like when its complex system of wiring was strung through the floors of the mansion.

“It’s clearer, I would say it’s a little be louder than it used to be, a lot fuller,” she said.

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The restoration only used parts made of materials original to the organ when it was first produced, but it does have one modern upgrade. The organ is now connected to a computer that controls the pipes electronically and can play hundreds of songs, just as it would if it were playing a tune from a paper roller device that operates the instrument without a player.

The restored instrument will give visitors a better sense of what it was like to live in the home as the two families did over the combined 52 years Brucemore was occupied, Janssen said, and mansion staff are looking for chances to play it during next spring rather than leaving it dormant until the holidays.

“It’s an artifact, and it connects us in time back to that specific family and that culture,” he said.

The organ will be played during Brucemore’s “Music in the Mansion” holiday tours this month, held every Sunday from 1 to 3 p.m. and every Thursday from 5:30 to 6:30 p.m. through December. Tickets are available here.

l Comments: (319) 398-8366; dan.mika@thegazette.com

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