Who remembers hearing the pipe organ in the Macon City Auditorium?
It’s still there, almost all of it. But though big metal pipes are still visible at the balcony level on either side of the stage, the organ has been silent for decades.
The massive and unique instrument now needs extensive cleaning and repair, and the console isn’t even connected. If it’s fixed, auditorium managers say, it could turn the copper-domed building into a major draw.
Mark Butcher, general manager of the Macon Marriott City Center and the Macon Centreplex -- which includes the auditorium -- played organ and other instruments in church. When he took over Centreplex management in April 2013, he was excited to find the auditorium had an organ.
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“When I saw these pipes sitting there, I said ‘What a great addition to this beautiful venue,’” Butcher said.
The organ, which is a cross between a theater organ and a church organ, was built in 1925 by the M.P. Moller Pipe Organ Co. of Hagerstown, Maryland, said David Higdon, the auditorium’s events manager.
The same company made the “Mighty Mo” -- short for Moller -- organ at Atlanta’s restored Fox Theatre. Butcher and Higdon called experts associated with the Fox to look over Macon’s organ, and they declared it to be in excellent shape, considering its age and situation.
“This organ’s actually larger than the one in the Fox Theatre,” Higdon said.
The Fox organ was custom-built in 1929 for $42,000, according to the theater’s website. It was valued at nearly 10 times that amount in 1974, and today the Fox calls it “priceless.”
The American Theatre Organ Society collaborated on 10 months of restoration in 1963, according to the website.
“Mighty Mo” has 42 ranks of pipes, a total of 3,622 from ballpoint-pen size to 32 feet in length, according to the Fox Theatre.
Tim Stephens, president of the organ society’s Atlanta chapter, checked an international database of significant pipe organs and found Macon’s on the list: a 1925 Moller Opus 4177, with 61 ranks of pipes and four rows of keys on the console.
“It’s quite an instrument, and it would be quite exciting for that to come back on line,” Stephens said.
The organ is a major original part of the auditorium, said Atlanta resident Ken Double, national president of the American Theatre Organ Society.
“It’s a very special instrument in a wonderful room, acoustically,” he said. Double said he came to inspect the organ several months ago with technician John Tanner of the A.E. Schlueter Pipe Organ Co. (Moller went out of business in 1992).
They found most of the major parts in place, but the blower mechanism was gone and the console was in pieces.
“That organ is going to take extensive restoration,” Double said.
Even so, it’s in much better shape than initially feared, Higdon said. Restoration would involve complete disassembly and cleaning, which would be expensive, he said. But the existing parts are mostly in excellent condition.
The missing blower, a big motorized fan, was apparently sold at a 2008 auction of city surplus property -- probably to serve as someone’s garage fan, Higdon said.
The pipes sit atop leather-lined air boxes. Butcher said the leather would have to be replaced.
The organ console was originally mounted in front of one side of the auditorium stage, in lieu of an orchestra pit, Higdon said. He went through archival pictures but hasn’t found a shot of the console in place. The auditorium underwent a major renovation in 1979, and apparently the organ console was taken out before that, he said.
“The last time it was played, that’s going to be the hard thing to pin down, I think,” Higdon said.
Today the console sits one floor below its original location, shoved into a dark corner behind a jumble of metal chairs. It’s covered by a plastic sheet and a thick layer of dust.
American Theatre Organ Society chapter members in Atlanta were relieved to see that most of the organ is intact and in restorable condition, said Tim Stephens, chapter president. The pipes above the stage are just “façade pipes,” which don’t actually sound, he said. Most of the functional pipework wouldn’t take that much to clean and fix, according to chapter members who examined it. Pipe repair and replacement is normally the biggest cost in organ restoration, Stephens said. And other parts, such as the blower, probably would have to be replaced anyway, he said.
“The working parts of the organ are all made of leather and other materials that degrade over time, so even for an organ that’s regularly played or in service, every 30 years or so there’s a good bit of restoration work that has to be done to keep them in operating condition,” Stephens said.
The sound of money
Butcher and Higdon said auditorium managers found many great, hidden features when they began work on the building: an elegant marble floor, once hidden by hideous green carpet; 2 ½-inch-thick heart-pine stage flooring and basement rooms now converted to reception halls.
The special purpose local option sales tax approved in November 2011 included $5 million for the Centreplex as a whole, to be split among the Macon Coliseum, convention center and auditorium. At the auditorium, the first task was to water-seal the basement, which threatened to ruin the rest of the building, Butcher said.
“That was so much more than we anticipated,” he said.
There just isn’t any set-aside money to restore the organ. And rough estimates from organ experts put that cost at $850,000 to $1 million, Butcher said.
“It’s something we should consider in the next SPLOST,” he said.
Higdon said he’d like to look for grant money or consider a fundraising campaign like the one that restored “Mighty Mo.”
Stephens said the quoted figure for restoration sounds about right for the size of the instrument. Fundraising for organ restoration elsewhere has sometimes been done by local governments, private donors or fundraising campaigns, he said.
If voters renew the six-year SPLOST in 2017, the organ likely would be on the project list, County Manager Dale Walker said.
The auditorium itself was built during the 1923 centennial of Macon, and Mayor Robert Reichert wants to restore the building to its “original luster” by the 2023 bicentennial, Walker said.
“Part of that is to restore the pipe organ,” he said.
Once back in operation, the organ could draw a variety of listeners, Butcher and Higdon said. Performers talk about the building’s wonderful acoustics. Though it seats a maximum of 2,688 people, the auditorium boasts better sound than the much larger coliseum, Higdon said. Music schools from the area’s colleges likely would be users, too, he said.
Butcher says it also would work for events such as weddings and funerals, but especially to draw organ aficionados, including those who now go to listen to “Mighty Mo.”
Stephens said the Atlanta organ society chapter includes about 130 households. Other cities have had great success with performance organs, most notably the recently restored 1924 Austin pipe organ at the Chattanooga Soldiers and Sailors Memorial Auditorium, he said.
“They host a series of concerts up there, at least two or three a year, and have great crowds,” Stephens said. The Chattanooga Music Club brings internationally known organists for Christmas, July Fourth and other shows, he said.
Double agreed that Macon’s Moller organ should be a big draw.
“It’s a spectacular instrument in the most unique room,” he said. “We love to see these things get rebuilt. We’ll do everything we can to help them promote this and get a great pipe organ back in operation in Macon.”
To contact writer Jim Gaines, call 744-4489.