November 5, 2020 Organ Notes

The Great Organ and a Simple Twist of Fate

They Say? What they say? Let them say.   Personal Motto of Edward F Searles

Photo of organ in Searles house, Pine Lodge, Methuen, Massachusetts. It was designed to resemble the Great Organ originally installed Boston Music Hall and now in his possession.

In 1884, the Great Organ had been unceremoniously ousted from Boston Music Hall. The Boston Symphony Orchestra (BSO) had edged the organ off the stage to make way for its performers. In 1900 the BSO left Music Hall for Symphony Hall. Music Hall underwent its own changes, first into a vaudeville theatre and then into a motion picture theatre. Today we know it as the Orpheum Theatre.

In 1976 the Grateful Dead performed on the Orpheum Theater stage. On the playbill was its hit song, Simple Twist of Fate. An appropriate choice, both in terms of the destiny of Music Hall and of its Great Organ.

In 1897, Edward Francis Searles (1841-1920) bought the Great Organ. Its value had declined to the rock-bottom price of $1,500. Searles shared something with William O. Grover, its interim owner from 1884 to 1897. He started out poor and worked hard to make his way. When he was an infant, father had moved the family from a small New Hampshire farm to Methuen, Massachusetts to get a job in the cotton mill. When he was three years old, his father and two siblings died. His mother and one brother survived.

Edward taught himself the piano and organ and hoped to be a professional musician. Needing to support his mother, he left school and started working in the cotton mill at age 12. In his twenties, he went to Boston to work at a furniture store. In his early thirties, he moved to New York City to work at Herter Brothers, an upscale interior design firm. It was Herter Brothers who had designed the case for the Great Organ a decade earlier.

And now the paths of William O. Grover and Edward Francis Searles diverge. While Grover acquired his fortune through his inventive patents, Searles acquired his through his unconventional marriage. In 1883 he used his connection at Herter Brothers to approach Mary Hopkins, a very wealthy widow in San Francisco. She loved architecture; he loved interior design.  She was 27 (?) years his senior. He was gay. It didn’t matter. They suited each other.

First they became companions traveling the world together. Then they married. Together they built mansions in Massachusetts and Rhode Island and enlarged their New York City apartment.

In 1891, Mary Hopkins Searles died. After fending off challenges to her will, Searles inherited her estate. He redressed the financial deprivation of his youth by building mansions in the places where his childhood had been blighted by poverty— Windham, New Hampshire and Methuen, Massachusetts. And he further redressed his blighted past in other ways. He bought  a Methuen woolen mill and converted it into an organ company. He donated organs to churches. He built public buildings for Methuen. He installed an organ in his home in Great Barrington, Massachusetts, and five organs in his home in Methuen. And then he bought the biggest keyboard instrument in the United States—the Great Organ of Boston Music Hall.

Searles did not let the organ languish in a barn. He commissioned the distinguished architect Henry Vaughan to design a concert hall for the sole purpose of housing the organ. The organ, was now rebuilt and installed in a magnificent setting both acoustically and visually. Searles brought professional organists to the hall and his house; he enjoyed improvising on the organ himself. But the Great Organ was used only for Searles’ private entertainment. The public was not admitted to Serlo Organ Hall during his lifetime.

Edward F. Searles died in Methuen in 1920. Reclusive, eccentric, generous but erratic in his gifting, he had always enjoyed his music. His will left his fortune, including Serlo Organ Hall and its organ to his confidential secretary, Arthur Walker (1877–1927). In a twist of fate, his will, like that of his deceased wife, was contested. In his case, it led to his body being exhumed and tested for possible poisoning. And then he was reburied.

But the organ he had resurrected remained intact and eventually passed into the hands of one of Boston’s greatest organ builders, Ernest M. Skinner.

And that will be next week’s Organ Note which will continue the tale of the peregrinations of the Great Organ.