Restoring Our 1870 George Stevens Organ
"What began as stewardship led to the discovery of a historic gem that should be restored and preserved for future generations." Denis Wagner, President of the Harvard Historical Society
Since its incorporation in 1897, the mission of the Harvard Historical Society has been to preserve the stories, events, artifacts, art, and heritage that shape the Town of Harvard. In 1966, the Harvard Historical Society purchased the Still River Baptist Church and became directly responsible for its stewardship. The church is now home to the Society and its collections and serves as a vital resource to the community, hosting a variety of programs and cultural events.
With the purchase of the building came a pipe organ that dominates the western wall of the church sanctuary. The organ was given to the Still River Baptist Society in 1870 by William Bowles Willard, an influential member of the community who, for 57 years, served as Clerk for the Baptist Society. The organ must have been a welcome and highly prized addition to the church to justify the sacrifices needed to accommodate it. Major renovations were made to reconfigure the choir loft and lower the foyer ceilings, which meant obscuring important architectural elements such as the great window overlooking the valley and the Gothic upper sections of the doors. The new configuration, although less aesthetically pleasing, created a space with remarkable acoustic quality.
In 2006, the Board of Directors for the Harvard Historical Society put in motion a plan to use the organ. The Andover Organ Company, who had once serviced the organ, repaired it and, after approximately 30 years of silence, the organ was heard by the public in a Society sponsored a concert featuring organist Michael Kleinschmidt, then organist for Trinity Church in Boston.
Discovery of a Historical Gem
The 2006 concert sparked renewed interest
in the organ and brought to light some
important issues. Time had taken its toll.
After 140 years of dust, deterioration, and
disintegration, the organ was nearing the
end of its serviceability. It could be made
usable for the short term with repeated and
costly service. The organ would need to be
serviced before each major event, at a cost
of $800 - $1000. This service could not
return the organ to full function. Nor could
it be guaranteed. In order to play the organ
as it stands, musicians must be sophisticated
enough to work around non-functioning
Michael Kleinschmidt said that the organ
appeared to be in original condition.
The Andover Organ Company noted the
same and offered to do a formal survey of its condition. It is extremely rare to find an organ from this era that has not been altered over time. In fact, Donald Olson, president of Andover Organ Co. has described it as “kind of a miracle.” If a detailed survey confirmed Kleinschmidt’s observation, it would give wider historical distinction to the organ itself, apart from its significance in local history.
While the survey was being conducted, the Society sponsored another concert, this time featuring organ historian, author, and organist Barbara Owen. Owen is a former president of the National Organ Historical Society, has authored several books on New England’s organ history, and is a professional consultant on “matters pertaining to the organ.” She provided specific details of the organ and its construction and concurred that the organ’s condition appeared to be unaltered. Impressed with the possibility of seeing this unique organ restored and preserved, Owen offered her expert services to the Society for free.
The true significance of the organ was recognized when the report from the Andover Organ Company revealed that the organ was intact and unaltered from its original installation. It was also determined that a complete restoration of the instrument could be accomplished, would return the full functioning splendor of its sound, and make it viable for future generations to enjoy. As Donald Olsen, president of Andover Organ Company, explained, “With the restoration, the organ becomes reliable, quiet and will sound wonderful. It would be an example of what the organ was like when new. With the restoration of the finish and case, it will be aesthetically pleasing as well in the room.” In addition, it holds the distinction of being the largest remaining single manual organ produced by George Stevens. “Single manual” means that the organ has only one keyboard. The Harvard Historical Society organ is unusually large for this type of organ. It contains 585 pipes and 12 stops, each stop adding a unique tonal quality across the keyboard.
In May 2010, Barbara Owen returned to perform a concert at the Still River Meetinghouse. On this visit, she bestowed a citation, awarded by the Organ Historical Society to the 1870 George Stevens & Co. Organ, honoring its unique historical qualities. This citation directly acknowledges the historic value and authenticity of this instrument. As of February 2010, this citation has been given to 46 pipe organs in Massachusetts and 390 in North America. It is one of only three organs produced by a George Stevens company.
Restoring and Preserving the Organ
Given the historical significance of the organ in the Still River Baptist Community and the historical significance of the organ as a unique and rare example of organ history, the Harvard Historical Society has embarked on a plan to restore this local gem so that its music can be heard and appreciated by the community for generations to come.
The Board of Directors has established an
Organ Advisory Committee. This committee
will provide direction on organ-related
programming and will provide management
and support to fundraising and grant writing
efforts and to the restoration project itself.
Contributors for this project include several
of the regions most highly regarded organ
professionals. Barbara Owen has remained
involved with the project. Will Sherwood,
Daniel Sansone, and Jim Barkovic have
become involved as well. Will Sherwood is
the organist of the Unitarian Universalist Church in Worcester and frequently conducts fundraising concerts for local charities. Daniel Sansone is the organist for the Cathedral of Mary Our Queen in Baltimore, Maryland. Jim Barkovic plays the organ in Concord, MA and is affiliated with the Orchestra of Indian Hill in Littleton, MA.
The scope of the restoration calls for the organ to be completely dismantled, removed from its location, cleaned, refinished, and reinstalled. Extensive work would be done to the keyboard, pedal board, trackers, the bellows-driven wind system, wind reservoir, and pipes. The organ will be reinstalled several feet further into the sanctuary to enhance its sound projection and to expose the beautiful cabinetry that is currently hidden. The belfry access must also be remedied, as it now sits directly on the organ cabinet. While the organ is off-site for restoration, the western end of the Sanctuary’s interior will be reconfigured to accommodate the revised installation.
The Harvard Historical Society must raise approximately $110,000 to complete the restoration. The organ will be professionally restored by the Andover Organ Company at an estimated cost of $78,000. The remaining funds will be used for structural work within the sanctuary to support the new installation. In order to reach this goal, the Society is seeking funding from private donors and corporate sponsors and is actively applying for grant funding.
The Harvard Historical Society has continued with its effort to integrate the organ back into the community. It has hosted a series of concerts and silent film accompaniments to raise interest and awareness about the organ and its need for restoration.
When the restoration is complete, the exceptional sound of this organ, coupled with the superior acoustic and historic nature of the church, will offer a unique and desirable venue, in which the Society plans to expand its musical program offerings. In a letter to the Society, Richard Jones, minister of The First Parish Church in Bolton, Massachusetts, and former vice president of the Organ Historical Society wrote, “...one of the best things about the organ is the room it is in; I have rarely heard a better room for music. The sound of music in the Still River Church is extraordinary, and when I have come across musicians planning concerts, I have suggested the Church as a venue, most recently to our own Bolton Philharmonic and the Chamber Music Society of Worcester.” Endorsements like this illustrate the potential for this organ venue to serve as a significant asset in both local and larger Central Massachusetts communities.