Walter Winn, caretaker of the Methuen Music Hall, stands watch over the “Great Organ,” which became the first concert organ in the United States., VALLEY DISPATCH/BENJAMIN J. MCELROY
PUBLISHED: | UPDATED:

BY JENNIFER AMY MYERS, Dispatch Staff

METHUEN — On the banks of the Spicket River lies an old brick building that time forgot. A place built before the time of television, video games, DVD players and cell phones. A place that in the year 2005 still shows silent movies accompanied by a live organist and hosts recitals by world-famous organists.

Upon purchasing the Boston Music Hall’s “Great Organ” for $1,500 at an 1897 estate auction, Methuen’s Edward Francis Searles commissioned architect Henry Vaughan (who designed Washington’s National Cathedral) to design and build a concert hall for the sole purpose of housing the organ in the style he felt it deserved.

After his death in 1920, the hall’s ownership changed hands several times, with the title eventually acquired by Essex Savings Bank at a foreclosure auction in July 1943.

A group of eight local residents, whose purpose was to acquire, operate and manage the Serlo Organ Hall as a cultural center, organized a non-profit organization in 1946 and shortly thereafter were granted the building and property by Alfred Gaunt, a Methuen textile mill operator who purchased the parcel from the Essex Savings Bank.

Today, a group of 30 volunteers operates and maintains the 360-seat Methuen Memorial Music Hall, which was listed on the National Register of Historic Places in 1978.

Sampson, a Raytheon engineer with a passion for pipe organ music, is proud that such a unique instrument, the first concert organ in the United States, has been preserved and remains active in Methuen.

“It’s becoming less and less popular to have organs installed in concert halls, both because of the space required and the cost,” he said. “Many people are opting for digital organs which some people refer to as toasters, because they are just electronic devices.”

“Some people say an organ isn’t an organ if it doesn’t have pipes,” Sampson added.

The innards of the imposing instrument are impressive — a maze of tin pipes on several levels accessible only by climbing sets of narrow, ladder-like stairs and walking across narrow boards.

Sampson said that the trustees put on about 24 events each year, including organ recitals and silent movies. On Nov. 18, The Hunchback of Notre Dame will be shown, accompanied by an improvised score by organist Chandler Noyes, a member of the board of tustees. Tickets are $10 for adults and $3 for children.

The hall’s annual Christmas program, A Merry Music Hall Christmas, which includes a brass ensemble along with the organ, will take place Dec. 3 at 7:30 p.m. and Dec. 4 at 3 p.m.

The hall is open from late April through late December, hosting a popular Wednesday night music series during the summer months.

The hall is also rented by choral and theater groups and is a popular wedding destination.

“It gives the impression of a large cathedral, but with a better organ,” Sampson said. “And because it is not a church, if there is some problem with interfaith marriage or something like that, this is a good place to be married.”

Given the age of the building, it is in remarkable condition, but maintenance concerns are beginning to raise their ugly heads.

There is some visible water damage caused by the aging roof, plaster has begun to fall from the ornate ceiling sculptures, and the boiler installed in 1946 is starting to outlive is usefulness.

“The boiler leaks and is not efficient at all,” Sampson said. “It is so old that our contractor said that we are going to have to bite the bullet soon and replace it because they can’t find parts for it anymore.”

The trustees will soon begin soliciting donations from the 4,600 people on their mailing list to fund the $10,000 needed for a new boiler.

“It’s a constant challenge to keep the organ tuned and maintained and the building in the best shape possible,” Sampson said. “We rely on ticket sales and donations.”

The Methuen Memorial Music Hall is located at 192 Broadway (Route 28) in Methuen. For more information call (978) 685-0693, or visit www.mmmh.org.

Know of an interesting spot in town? E-mail Jennifer Amy Myers at jmyers@thevalleydispatch.com.