ONCE A TOY OF THE RICH, ‘GREAT ORGAN’ NOW PLAYS FOR THE PEOPLE

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BY JENNIFER AMY MYERS, Dispatch Staff

METHUEN — In 1856 Dr. Jabez Baxter Upham headed to Europe for the purpose of choosing a company to build a world-class concert organ for the Boston Music Hall, built in 1852.

It took him four months, but on Feb. 20, 1857 he had a contract in hand, signed by E.F. Walcker and Company of Ludwigsburg, Germany. The building of the organ, expected to take one year, was delayed by the American Civil War, which increased building costs.

The organ was completed in 1862 and was shipped from Rotterdam on the inappropriately named Presto, which was anything but, arriving in Boston in March 1863.

The marvelous instrument was the first concert organ in the United States, and the toast of Boston for 21 years. However, with the advent of the Boston Symphony Orchestra in 1884, enthusiasm for the “Great Organ” diminished. The BSO needed more stage space, and the organ was sold to William O. Grover for $5,000.

Grover had planned on gifting the instrument to the New England Conservatory of Music, a plan he never put into action. The massive organ sat in storage after his death until it was sold at auction in 1897 to settle his estate.

While working for the prestigious interior decorating firm of Herter Brothers, — ironically the same company that crafted the organ’s case — Searles took a business trip to San Francisco that would change his lot in life immeasurably. Charged with inspecting a stately Nob Hill mansion, Searles met its owner, Mary Frances Sherwood Hopkins, who was the widow of a founder of the Central Pacific Railroad. The couple hit it off, despite the fact that Hopkins was 22 years Searles senior, and were married in 1887.

Upon his wife’s death in 1891, Searles inherited the entire Hopkins’ estate. The fortune exceeded $21 million, including real estate holdings in New York, Methuen, San Francisco and Great Barrington.

The organ, purchased by Searles in pieces, was rebuilt from 1905 to 1909, and used only for Searles’ private entertainment.

Searles died in 1920. The hall was left to his confidential secretary, Arthur Thomas Walker. Upon Walker’s death, his niece Ina Cecil McEachran inherited the hall. In 1930 the hall was purchased by Lillian Wightman Andrew, and one year later by organ builder Ernest M. Skinner.

Skinner presented several public performances of works, including Brahms’ Requiem, the Bach B minor Mass and Handel’s Messiah. Recitals were also performed by Marcel Dupre, Lynnwood Farnam and E. Power Biggs.

Essex Savings Bank became the title holder of the land in July of 1943 at a foreclosure auction for $55,000.

The Methuen Memorial Music Hall, Inc., a nonprofit organization, was established in 1946 to operate, preserve and manage the “Great Organ” and the hall.

The hall and surrounding land was given to the foundation by Alfred Gaunt, a Methuen textile mill operator, who purchased the property from the bank.

The “Great Organ” is now considered priceless. An appraiser has quoted a figure of $1 million to rebuild the actual organ, but said the level of intricate craftsmanship on the organ’s case could not be duplicated today.

To comment on this story, e-mail Jennifer Amy Myers at jmyers@thevalleydispatch.com.