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Hidden treasure in walls of Eastman School of Music

This archival photo shows a performance at Kilbourn Hall with orchestra and organ.

There is a hidden treasure in the walls of the Eastman School of Music that has been there since the 1920s. It's in Kilbourn Hall, and even if you have attended concerts there, you've probably never seen or heard it.

It's a pipe organ -- one that rivals the size of those found in great European cathedrals.

"People are shocked to find this out," says David Higgs, the head of the Eastman School of Music Organ Department, "because the console, the part that you play, where you see four keyboards and all the stops and pedals, sits underneath the stage and is on a hydraulic lift that is currently broken."  

There are 94 ranks of pipes up above the stage, as he notes, "getting close to the size of the Notre Dame organ."

This instrument’s history is tied to the early days of the school, going back to 1921.

It is, as Higgs relates, a "purpose-built instrument for Kilbourn Hall, built at the same time as the hall, and designed by the first professor of music at the Eastman School of Music, Harold Gleason. He was also George Eastman’s organist."

The other designer was another musician who was less known in the United States as the founder of the Eastman organ department: Joseph Bonnet. Higgs says he was one of the most famous organists in the world, and Eastman brought him to Rochester from Paris.

For decades, the organ was played for silent films, concerts, graduations, and other events, but time and temperature took their toll, and it was last heard in the mid-1990s.

A more recent photo of the organ console in Kilbourn Hall, before the hydraulic lift broke.

Higgs says that when he first across the instrument in those years, it was "held together by Band-Aids and bubblegum."

Normally, an organ should last 200 years without a significant rebuild. This instrument’s life was shortened by a heating system that was installed in the 1970s and blew dry, damaging air through the instrument. Newer systems wouldn’t cause the same problem, but significant repairs are needed to fix the earlier damage.

Higgs is part of a group called the Eastman Rochester Organ Initiative that wants to help make those repairs happen.  

"I think organists, more than any other musician -- we are so aware of our surroundings, because they often say that the room the organ is in is the most important stop on the organ," Higgs says. "Virgil Fox, famous concert organist, he said: 'I don’t play the organ, I play the building.' And I think that’s really a good way to think of it. When we do that, we’re making the building sing, not just making the pipes sing."

Especially after the outpouring of support for Notre Dame in Paris, Higgs hopes that they can bring together the resources to bring this local treasure back to life. Then, the walls of Kilbourn Hall will again sing with its sounds.

Music credits: The organ recordings in this feature are by Emily Cooper and Rick Erickson.