Rebuilding the 1860 Simmons and Willcox organ for Mount Vernon
  By George Bozeman Jr.

In rebuilding the 1860 Simmons and Willcox organ for Mount Vernon Church two objectives, not necessarily complementary, were kept paramount. It goes without saying that the organ had to serve the contemporary needs of Mount Vernon's extensive and richly varied musical program. At the same time the unique historical importance of this rare survival of the work of W.B.D. Simmons merited every effort to preserve its original character, at least so far as it had survived the vicissitudes of time, neglect, and even vandalism.

This dual responsibility was lightened, however, by the fact that it had been determined as a result of much study and research, primarily by former Music Director James Carmichael, that an organ embodying the tonal character and architecture of the best American organs of the nineteenth century would best meet the needs of Mount Vernon's worship in music.

The middle of the nineteenth century was a very fertile period in the organ history of the United States. In the earliest days of the organ in this country, which were somewhat retarded because of the strong Puritan sentiments current then, and which held the organ as an instrument of the devil, the primary models for American organs were imported English instruments, although there were a few important influences from a strong Germanic strain of organbuilding in Pennsylvania Dutch country which were grafted into the basic English model.

Although English organs of this period were consummately beautiful in tone, they were somewhat limited for playing the international repertory of organ music because the insular English had still not adopted the use of pedal keyboards, and still retained the Renaissance keyboard compasses. Thus with the revival of interest in the music of J. S. Bach, for example, it soon became apparent that English organs were incapable of doing it justice. Mendelssohn's visits with his friends, Queen Victoria and Prince Albert, and his public performances in England did much to pave the way for a revolution in English organ design.

These same influences rapidly spread across the Atlantic to America, inspiring W.B.D. Simmons and others to make grand tours of the organs of Europe to learn firsthand about instruments capable of playing the entire organ reperrtory of the time. This was during the heart of the Romantic period in art and music, and it was an exciting and vital time, not least beause it was only a generation after the Classical period, and this in turn after the height of the Baroque period when J. S. Bach flourished. Yet it was the period which gave birth to the ensuing Impressionism of the early twentieth century and the following Modernism, which we are still in. Because of this the American organs of the mid-nineteenth century are amazingly versatile instruments, still fully possessed of the classic organ virtues and disciplines of earlier times, yet replete with the color and dramatic effects of the Romantic period.

It is for these reasons that an instrument of this character seemed so right for Mount Vernon, where the musical tastes are eclectic and wide-ranging.

The 1860 Simmons and Willcox was an instrument well-endowed with the best of the mid-nineteenth century, and fortunately it had survived with most of its original tonal material intact. Moreover, it was housed in an unusually handsome chestnut case, which blended well with the architecture of Mount Vernon Church, and was almost the perfect proportions for the space available.

Our policy, therefore, was to retain, restore, and preserve all of the original pipes that had survived (there were a few sets of pipes that replaced originals which we did not retain; they neither improved the effect of the organ nor were of any historic value). In addition the case was restored to its original appearance with missing parts restored; the original detached console shell was retained and much of its interior mechanism. Unfortunately, the ivory keys had been destroyed but enough remained of them that Boston harpsichord-builder Carl Fudge was able to construct exact replicas of them, except that in consideration of the threatened extinction of elephants, beef bone was used instead of ivory.

The Great windchest was retained, and this division still has its original stoplist. The Swell stoplist was fine so far as it went, but was deemed rather limited in size for Mount Vernon's requirements, so a new windchest was constructed strictly according to the pattern of the original (indeed, some original chest parts were incorporated) and the original pipes were planted on it in the same fashion as before, but several important new stops were provided for as well.

In the Pedal there were originally only two stops, and these are still present and playing on their original windchests which, however, have been made to operate electrically. This was necessary because height limitations required the longest pipes, sixteen feet long, to be laid on their sides rather than as in the original layout. Again, the contemporary requirements of Mount Vernon dictated that additional Pedal stops be added, which are placed on a normal slider windchest with mechanical actions exactly as the original Simmons windchests were constructed.

The original bellows survived, although the hand-pumping feeder bellows were long ago discarded when an electric blower was fitted to the instrument, and thus it has its original wind characteristics, which play an important part in its distinctive sound.

In order to make the instrument easy and flexible to play, a modern electro-pneumatic stop action has replaced the original mechanical system, and this made possible the inclusion of an up-to-date combination system which allows the organist to store hundreds of tonal combinations which can be recalled at the touch of a button, or changed to new ones equally simply.

The pipes in this organ fall into three classes:

  • original pipes (except for the occasional replacement of a single pipe here and there);
  • pipes marked "East Boston," which represent stops which had either been lost from this organ or which it never had, but which were in any case carefully copied from an existing Simmons organ of similar character in East Boston, Massachusetts;
  • pipes marked "new," which are additions to the instrument which were not typical of Simmons's work, but which we felt were needed for contemporary requirements, and which we designed to harmonize with the Simmons pipes.

George Bozeman Jr. studied organ with the late Dr. Helen Hewitt at North Texas University, apprenticed as an organbuilder with Otto Hofmann of Austin, Texas, and later worked with Joseph E. Blanton in Albany, Texas, and Robert Sipe & Company in Dallas. He received a Fulbright grant to study organbuilding in Austria for the years 1967-68, and also studied organ with the late Anton Heiller and harpsichord with Isolde Ahlgrimm at the Academy of Music in Vienna. The organ for Mount Vernon is opus 44 for his firm, George Bozeman, Jr. & Co., Inc., of Deerfield, New Hampshire.


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© 2007 Mount Vernon United Methodist Church, 107 West Main Street; Danville, Virginia 24541
February 2008