The Henry Kilgen Organ in Austin, Nevada: A Description of the Instrument and Its Restoration

By Friesen, Michael D.; Bennett, Howard D. et al. | The Tracker, Winter 2016 | Go to article overview

The Henry Kilgen Organ in Austin, Nevada: A Description of the Instrument and Its Restoration


Friesen, Michael D., Bennett, Howard D., Ruggles, Charles M., The Tracker


INTRODUCTION

THE PRESERVATION of the only known surviving Henry Kilgen organ, built in 1884, which is mechanically, tonally, and visually intact, is a cause for celebration. Several fortuitous circumstances came together to make it possible, not the least of which was the fact that the building that it is housed in has itself been preserved and adapted for reuse. Any number of calamities could have occurred after St. Augustine's R.C. Church, at 113 Virginia Street in Austin, Nevada, which was built in 1866, was closed by the Diocese of Reno in 1990 and deconsecrated due to inadequate membership, lack of priest availability, and the expenses that would be associated with properly rehabilitating the structure. Not maintained for years, even prior to the closing, the roof needed replacing, the walls were bowing out, the windows leaked, and parts of the stone foundation were disintegrating. A heavy wet snowfall could have caused the entire church to collapse. This would have been a tragedy, as all three 19th-century church buildings were made of locally-produced red brick, all thankfully are still extant, and are fine period examples of architecture that help define the appealing character of this once-booming mining community.

In 2003, local resident Jan Morrison purchased the former church for the purpose of converting it into a summer arts center, and, with the involvement of other local residents, formed a non-profit organization, St. Augustine's Cultural Center, LLC, to accomplish that. Over the next eleven years, Morrison pursued its gradual rehabilitation, obtaining some Si million in three different historic preservation grants for a new roof; "dry stack" granite foundation repairs and a new entrance platform; rebuilding of the windows; work on the walls; steeple repairs and weatherproofing; conversion of the basement into usable space, with a large meeting room, restrooms, kitchen, storage, and work areas; installation of an ADA-accessible ramp and entrance on the lower level; installation of both a lift and a new stairway from the basement to the main level interior; and, happily, also the restoration of the organ.

To set the Kilgen organ in context requires some explanation. The particular character of Nevada meant that the state had never had many pipe organs in the 19th century in the first place, but those that had survived held particular interest because of their association with gold and silver rushes, particularly in Virginia City and Austin. Extant instruments in St. Paul's Episcopal Church in Virginia City and St. George's Episcopal Church in Austin, coincidentally both made by the same builder, Alexander Mills of New York City, dating from 1876 and 1878, respectively, have been the most well-known. One other organ, by Thomas Whalley of Oakland, Calif., dating from 1892, survives in a relocation. Others, however, have been lost due to fires or indifference, but these are all stories that should be left to another time and place.

So how was the Kilgen organ found? Individuals interested in organ history in numerous places in this country have for years scouted out many churches "along the highways and the byways" looking for old organs, particularly those in long-forgotten and overlooked small towns or in declining inner-city neighborhoods where the chances of survival of historic instruments are greater. Many have been members of the Organ Historical Society.

It had long been rumored that there was a pipe organ in the Catholic church in Austin, but for various reasons, people interested in old organs had never managed to visit the church when it was unlocked and/or a mass was in progress, so the story remained unverified. (There was no resident priest, nor a rectory.) For example, the late Alan Laufman in particular, for years throughout his many travels, when he was involved in saving and relocating historic pipe organs, had tried to gain access in order to check on the rumor to no avail. …

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