The condition of the pipe organ in the Macon City Auditorium struck a chord with a number of Telegraph readers.
They responded with calls and emails to us and to the auditorium’s managers, many urging that the unique 1925 Moller organ be repaired. Some simply recalled the last time they heard the instrument sounding.
And a few of them dug out artifacts from the organ’s past -- even details of previous repairs.
Leon Thomas last heard the organ at his 1970 graduation from Ballard-Hudson High School. Several area schools used the auditorium for graduation ceremonies then, but his was a little different, he said.
“There had been an electric organ rented that most of the music directors of the schools played,” Thomas said. “However, at our graduation our music director played the pipe organ.”
Most of the organ is intact, though its console is stored in a corner of the auditorium basement. It would need extensive cleaning and some repair, and organ experts estimate that would cost roughly $850,000 to $1 million. If it’s fixed, in conjunction with other renovations to the copper-domed auditorium, managers hope it could become a major draw for organ enthusiasts and a popular feature for events such as weddings.
“It’s amazing how much interest is behind that,” said Mark Butcher, general manager of the Macon Marriott City Center and the Macon Centreplex, which includes the auditorium. In the past few days, several local residents and even a few hotel guests have contacted him with memories of the organ’s performance and some technical information, he said.
Thomas said that in 1970, even after years of neglect and incomplete repairs, the organ still sounded “magnificent.”
“With the acoustics of the auditorium, it was just beautiful,” he said.
That the organ was playable then at all is largely attributable to Bob Hill, who now lives near Griffin.
For many years Hill ran Claxton-Hill Drugs in Shurlington Shopping Center, but he was also a tinkerer and member of the American Theatre Organ Society. In 1968, he said, the organ was broken. So he volunteered to fix it, an offer treated dubiously by Macon’s then-city council.
“See, I’m a pharmacist, and I’m asking to go into city property and mess with city property,” Hill said. But after looking at the instrument with him, the council agreed, though at first the auditorium manager stayed after hours to watch him, he said.
“I spent about a year and a half in there,” working nights, some weekends and holidays, Hill said.
The organ took a lot of work even then. Wrestling matches were held on the auditorium’s main floor, and the top of the organ console broke when several wrestlers stood on it to jump into the ring, he said.
Hill got the organ going, but even so the city wasn’t willing to pay for a thorough restoration. The M.P. Moller Pipe Organ Co., the original builder of the organ, quoted a $200,000 price at the time for full repairs, he said. So Hill did what he could, even using bits from an early Wurlitzer organ that once served the Macon Grand Opera House, he said. And Moller, based in Hagerstown, Maryland, also helped.
“I went up there, and Peter (Moller Daniels) was kind enough to give me copies of most everything,” Hill said.
Daniels, grandson of the company’s founder, worked for Moller for 38 years and retired as president, according to his obituary. The company went out of business in 1992, and Daniels died in 2011.
Hill still has a copy of the organ’s original schematic, dated May 15, 1925.
PIECES OF HISTORY
Renewed mention of the organ reminded Jean Weaver of an item she inherited long ago. Tucked into a bookcase, she found an original program from the auditorium’s dedication ceremony, 8 p.m. Nov. 23, 1925.
Weaver remembers seeing the organ in functioning condition when she saw traveling opera companies perform at the auditorium decades ago. She also saw parts of the instrument in various sections of the building when she was there holding tap dance recitals, she said. But the program contains details that can’t be gathered simply by looking at it.
“The organ is one of the largest in the entire Southeast and guaranteed to be the equal (at least) of any organ its size in the United States,” it says.
The instrument was built as part of the auditorium, with the entire structure costing $795,000, paid for with bond issues and a special tax, says a long description in the program. It contains detailed specifications of the organ, and lists the selections from Mendelssohn, Schubert, Stephen Foster, Sibelius and others played by New York City organist Henry Seibert.
Flint Dollar, organist at First Presbyterian Church in Milledgeville, said he’s been trying to spark renewed interest in the auditorium organ for four years.
“Mostly I haven’t gotten any response,” he said. Dollar said he was one of the last master students of the late Mercer University organ teacher Bob Parris.
“Bob presented a proposal to the city of Macon in 1982 to get the organ rebuilt. At that point the city said ‘Forget it, there’s no money, let it go,’ ’’ Dollar said.
The auditorium organ was one of only three hybrid church/theater organs Moller ever built, and Moller was unique in combining those styles, he said.
“Ours is the only one of the three sister organs that still exists in its original form,” Dollar said. One, in San Antonio, Texas, was destroyed by fire; and the other, in Washington, D.C., was sold piecemeal in the 1970s, he said.
Dollar said he’d like to get a professional survey of the organ’s condition and proposals for its repair from several companies.
Jim Grier, a member of the Macon chapter of the American Guild of Organists, said many members of that group are familiar with the auditorium organ and would like to see it working again. He last heard it play in 1970, he said.
But even then, after Hill’s repairs, it wasn’t exactly treated with respect. Basketball games took place on the main floor, and the organ console was less than a foot off the foul line, exposed to wild passes or errant bounces, Grier said.
“That left panel got knocked in a lot,” he said.
In its heyday, though, the organ was powerful. Before many of the auditorium’s doors and windows were sealed with the advent of air conditioning, its music could be heard a block away, Grier said.
To get it back in form, one possibility Macon-Bibb County officials have suggested is including the $1 million cost on the project list for the next special purpose local option sales tax, likely up for voter approval in 2017. Mayor Robert Reichert wants the auditorium as a whole restored to its “original luster” for the 2023 bicentennial of Macon, said County Manager Dale Walker.
Grier suggests seeking grants well before then, perhaps from the Peyton Anderson Foundation or the local branch of the John S. and James L. Knight Foundation. The auditorium’s listing on the National Register of Historic Places should help, he said.
Hill said Mercer and Wesleyan College could be interested, since the organ could be a boon to their music students. But he’s “a little skeptical” about finding the money after so many years and various attempts.
Even if initial repairs are funded, he said, that’s not the end of it. A big, complex organ needs a stream of revenue to pay for ongoing maintenance.
“Don’t do it if you don’t have the follow-up,” he said.
To contact writer Jim Gaines, call 744-4489.