Home at last: Organ panels back in Music Hall

Posted at 8:40 AM, Sep 28, 2015
and last updated 2015-09-28 08:40:05-04

CINCINNATI -- Twenty-six hand-carved wooden panels that had once been a part of the largest pipe organ in the United States have been returned to Cincinnati Music Hall and are now on temporary display in the Corbett Tower.

The organ had been a part of the original Music Hall construction project in 1878, built by the Boston firm Hook & Hastings, the nation’s prominent organ manufacturer at the time. The instrument consisted of 6,237 pipes and measured 50 feet wide and 60 feet high, according to “The Cincinnati Organ” by George Ward Nichols, an 82-page booklet that commemorated the dedication of Music Hall.

Cincinnati happened to be the home of William and Henry Fry, a father-son woodcarving team who came from England in 1850 and were leaders in Cincinnati's Aesthetic Movement. The two stepped forward to coordinate the design and construction of panels to cover the workings of the organ, but it took over 100 pairs of hands to finish the task.

The influence of the Fry family -- which also included William’s daughter, Laura -- was so great that they had dozens of students in their own school and were influential in founding a wood carving department the School of Design, now part of the Art Academy of Cincinnati, taught by Benn Pitman. His students were mostly women, according to Nichols’ book.

Both studios worked to create over 100 panels from native cherry wood with designs by the Frys and Pitman. The carvers all volunteered their time, although Music Hall founders offered a competition prize to the best carvers.

“The panels were a gift to Music Hall and just as important as the bricks and mortar that made up the building,” said Kathy Janson, a vice president of the Society for the Preservation of Music Hall who has been leading the restoration of the panels.

Despite its magnificence, the organ fell into disuse after an 1895 renovation relegated it to a remote position behind the double proscenium of the remodeled Springer Auditorium, according to past issues of Music Hall Marks, the newsletter of the preservation society.

Although there were many attempts to restore or revitalize the organ, the cost proved prohibitive and the final blow came during a 1974 renovation of Music Hall when a new electronic organ was installed in its place and the components, including the hand-carved panels, scattered.

Eighteen panels were put in the orchestra pit and others went to the Museum Center. Still others were were given to patrons and employees. The pipes were either given away to area churches as replacements or scrapped.

With another renovation of Music Hall looming, the preservation society has made an effort to get back as many of the panels as possible, and in November 2011, the process began to have the existing panels restored by Heller Conservation Services in Nashville, Tenn.

Many of the panels now on display have not yet been restored 100 percent, Janson said, but the plan is to have them remain on view in the Corbett Tower until sometime in October.

“We’re hoping they’ll stay in the Corbett Tower permanently,” Janson said, “but that’s up to the architects" for the renovation, who have yet to be selected.