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History of the Organ at Mount Vernon
      By Alan Laufman, executive director, the Organ Clearing House

Restored Simmons and Willcox (1860) organ at Mount Vernon United Methodist Church, Danville, VirginiaThis organ was for many years in Saint Philip's Roman Catholic Church on Harrison Avenue in the South End of Boston. When I first found it, around 1960, it was in regular use, though it was somewhat run-down.

About 1968, Saint Philip's Church closed, and I tried to find a new home for the instrument, fearing arson or vandalism to the organ in the boarded-up building. The Archdiocese of Boston seemed reluctant to sell the organ, even though we had several interested potential buyers.

Around 1971, the building and organ passed into the hands of the Boston Redevelopment authority, and I became more concerned than ever, having known of several fine instruments in Authority-owned buildings which were destroyed when the structures were razed. Repeated efforts to pry loose the Simmons and Willcox met with no success, however, and by 1975 it faced a clear and present danger, for many of the windows in the building were broken out, and pigeons and weather were exacting a heavy toll.

Late in 1975 I wrote to the grand old man of the preservation movement, Walter Muir Whitehill, dean of Boston historians, setting forth the plight of the Simmons and Willcox organ, and soliciting his help. It appears that he was good friends with the director of the Redevelopment Authority. Within a month, we had permission to remove the organ to safe storage. We did not have a buyer for it, nor did we have funds to remove the entire instrument. However, a volunteer crew was able to remove all the manual pipework above 4' pitch in May 1976. Bozeman-Gibson & Co. provided liability insurance, William Baker and Joseph Dzeda provided transportation, and Richar Hamar supplied storage at the Old Stone Shop in Collinsville, Connecticut.

At that time, the lower floors of Saint Philip's Church were occupied by an out-patient clinic of Boston City Hospital; the church proper was filled with stored hospital equipment, and the entire building was under twenty-four-hour guard. I was assured by the Redevelopment Authority that we would be notified when the clinic was to move out and the guard lifted. Unfortunately, that promise was not kept, and when the building was abandoned in the spring of 1977, I knew nothing of it until September of that year. I was incapacitated with the flu when I received a call from a member of the Boston Organ Club, asking if I knew anything about a "vandalized organ in the rear gallery of an abandoned church near Boston City Hospital."

George Bozeman and David Gibson promptly made available two of their employees, David Wilde and Bill Visscher, to start taking down the "pigeon-droppings organ," as it came to be known. Much of the pipework we had left behind was gone or utterly ruined; some wooden pipes were splintered, and many metal pipes were crushed flat. David and Bill worked alone until I was able to get to Boston; eventually we were joined by Rosalind Mohnsen, Lois Regestein, and Barbara Owen, who volunteered their time and labor. There was no power in the building, and a fall storm, with high winds and cold rain, prevailed the three days we were there. The building was unsecured, and though we did our best to protect vulnerable items, someone broke in the first night and smashed off the fronts of all the naturals (white keys) on the manual keyboards, presumably hoping to sell the ivory.

Quentin Regenstein and Joseph Dzeda made generous contributions to help defray the cost of renting a truck. Finally, the whole organ, battered but restorable, was safely stored in Collinsvile. When Richard Hamar had to vacate that space several years later, Rubin Frels offered to store the organ in Victoria, Texas, and it was moved there just about the time that the old Saint Philip's Church building was destroyed by fire, on 26 April 1981.

When I had first discovered the organ, I had tried to find out something of its past. I knew that Saint Philip's Church was not its original home, for that church clearly dated from the turn of the century. Moreover, many of the pipes were marked "Cambridge." Wm. B. D. Simmons did not use opus numbers but often did mark pipework with the name of the city or town for which the organ was built. There are many churches in Cambridge, and the organ could have been built for any one of a number of them. Occasional research over the next two decades did not reveal which one it was.

In 1984, I was doing some research at the Cambridge Historical Commission, trying to find out the history of another old organ, an S.S. Hamill instrument we had recently relocated to Michigan. The Commission has individual folders on every building in the city; after finding what I was looking for on the Hamill, I idly rummaged through several church files, just to see what I might find. In one folder I found a photograph of the front of a church about which I had long been curious. The next photograph showed the back of the church, and a stunning organ case. The case looked almost English, and I wondered who might have built it. Suddenly I realized that it was the Saint Philip's organ.

The organ was built in 1860 by Simmons and Willcox for the First Church Congregational in Cambridge, Massachusetts. It was used only for twelve years before First Church sold its old church building to Saint Paul's Roman Catholic Church and moved to new quarters on Garden Street. The old organ stayed behind in the old building on Mount Auburn Street, and was used by St. Paul's for thirty-two years, at which time it was supplanted by a new instrument. In due course, the Simmons and Willcox organ was relocated to Saint Philip's Church.

Once Mount Vernon Church decided to purchase the organ, I moved it, assisted by Amory Atkins, Jesse Clough, and Whitney Fletcher, from Texas to the Deerfield, New Hampshire, shop of George Bozeman Jr. & Co., where it underwent a complete restorative rebuilding and enlargement.

See REBUILDING THE 1860 SIMMONS AND WILLCOX ORGAN FOR MOUNT VERNON, by George Bozeman, Jr., for details of the restoration of the organ.

 

 

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Feb. 27, 2007