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Blackstone Pipe Organ History

Vestavia Hills, Alabama Pipe Organ Installation

The initial installation of the pipe organ was in Vestavia Hills Alabama, a suburb of Birmingham. That instrument was 68 ranks, and John Hendriksen (Boston) specified the pipework and performed all voicing and tonal finishing on site. Tommy Anderson (Boston) was the pipemaker, and spent a month on site refurbishing the few ranks that were salvaged from other organs for this installation. Tommy Anderson was head flue pipe maker for Aeolian-Skinner, and John Hendriksen head flue voicer. Over the next 5 years an essentially new Aeolian-Skinner instrument was configured, constructed, voiced, and finished by former Aeolian-Skinner people.


Initial Phase 1 chest shell construction and winding (completed 1988) was by Roger Colby. Phase 2 chest shell construction and winding (completed 1995) for Antiphonal main chest and Echo divisions was by Bill Durst. Its action was electro-mechanical throughout (Kimber-Allen for the most part; Antiphonal and Echo, Justin Matters), using full 2" mahogany toeboards. The instrument was controlled by a Devtronix computer and software system.


The four manual console was from Aeolian Opus 1664, built in 1927 -- solid walnut -- that was salvaged from the fire at its original location, White Chapel Memorial Cemetery, Detroit, MI. The ozone used for ridding the Chapel of smoke caused all the cotton insulation to fall off, and reduced the leather pneumatics to a pile of dust. Thus the console interior was completely stripped out, Peterson linear pots were attached to the expression shoes, Harris drawknobs were installed in one jamb, and the Klann drawknobs and tilt tablets that had been installed in the 1970s were retained in the other. 


Mary and George Blackstone, parents of Dr. Blackstone, invested 6 months of "slave labor" in wiring of the main organ and pipe racking. Dr. Blackstone's family and many friends also invested uncountable time and energy in the project since its inception in 1971. The house was completed in 1976, the organ first played Easter Sunday, 1988, and the antiphonal was installed in 1995. After hurricane damage in the fall of 1995, the instrument was cleaned and made more mechanically reliable by Richard Schneider and Shawn Keith.



Visual design/layout of the instrument was by Randy Wagner, but with considerable input from the residence architect, John Fuller -- the house and organ were designed in concert with one another. Thus, the instrument is not "encased" (though in a house you might say the house is the case!), and although there is cantilevering, this was done using modern architectural methods so that one is not aware of it. The organ itself "gobbles up" roughly 14" by 12' of space (pedal)--that is, it is "all 'way up in the air" so that it intrudes little on the living space of the house (except for the console, but Aeolian consoles are shallow front to back).  

Bratenahl, Ohio Pipe Organ Reinstallation and Enlargement


In December, 1997, the Vestavia Hills organ was dismantled, carefully packed, and transported to Cleveland Heights, Ohio by Richard Schneider and family, for storage, awaiting its reinstallation.


Several years elapsed while we investigated the possibility of refurbishing or enlarging an existing house or even church or warehouse to accommodate the pipe organ. We eventually decided we should again build a house around the organ, just as we had in Birmingham some 35 years earlier. We narrowed our search to two differing kinds of possible building sites: In the woods by a stream as in Birmingham and on the shores of Lake Erie. We finally discovered both, and after our usual Pros and Cons list, decided that we had lived half our lives in the woods, and living by the lake was an attractive alternative for the second half of our lives.


When we arrived in Cleveland, Toby Cosgrove (Cleveland Clinic) introduced us to two local architects who had designed significant public musical spaces, one of whom was Richard Fleischman. Our ideas meshed wonderfully with his, and we began the process of designing the building that was to house the organ. The final design is a classic basilica in modern guise: 34 wide by 96 long, nearly full-length skylight, an apse at each end for the organ, porticos to the side for the living spaces. A slight rotation of the house to less restrict neighbor's view of the lake was required, which brought these porticos to the north end of the building, creating a classic cuniform footprint. There followed two wood scale models with general placement of each division of the organ--although not the specific visual details (see Architecture tab).


John Hendriksen, then approaching age 80 designed the new devisions, suggested moving a few ranks (sets) of pipes from one Birmingham division to another Cleveland division, and adding to existing divisions as well as specifying new ones. In the interim, both George and Mary Blackstone had died, and could no longer be the tremendous resource they had been in both overseeing the Birmingham installation and doing much of the chest and pipe racking work.


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