The Round Lake Auditorium Organ

By Harrison, Michael R. | The Tracker, April 1, 2017 | Go to article overview

The Round Lake Auditorium Organ


Harrison, Michael R., The Tracker


ON JANUARY 11 of this year, U.S. Secretary of the Interior Sally Jewell announced the designation of the Davis & Ferris organ in the auditorium at Round Lake, New York, as a National Historic Landmark. This is an exceptional and exciting development for the organ community. Although over 2,500 buildings, structures, sites, districts, and objects have been landmarked since the federal government created the National Historic Landmarks Program a half century ago, this is the first time a pipe organ has been individually designated completely in its own right, separate from the building or site enclosing it. National preservation recognition at this level underscores the historic significance and integrity of the Round Lake organ, and opens the door for the potential landmarking of other important organs in the future to represent other periods and styles of American organbuilding.

The Round Lake organ was built by the New York firm of Davis & Ferris in 1846-48 for Calvary Episcopal Church in New York City, and moved to Round Lake in 1888. Containing 42 ranks in 34 speaking stops, the instrument is the oldest surviving three-manual organ by an American builder, and the largest American organ built before 1850 to survive substantially in its original form. It also contains the oldest surviving zinc pipes known in an American organ. The landmark designation declares the organ to be nationally significant "as an outstanding representation of 19th-century American organs and the music they produce[d]" and as "a nearly intact example of the art and science of American organ building in its earliest years."1 (The definition of "earliest years" could be quibbled with here.) Because the instrument retains a high proportion of its original pipework as well as its original tracker mechanism, it allows organists to perform under the same mechanical constraints earlier performers encountered, and it allows modern audiences to experience the same sounds that 19th-century audiences heard.

Although national recognition of this kind for an organ has no precedent, the Round Lake organ's importance has been recognized in Round Lake and in the historic organ community for half a century. The village has worked to preserve the instrument intact, without modernizations, since the 1950s. Stephen Pinel, former archivist of the OHS Library and Archives, has long been a champion of this instrument, performing on it and writing about it in these pages and in the 2006 Organ Atlas of the Capital District Region of New York State, which coincided with an OHS convention visit to Round Lake. In 2010-11, with the assistance of Pinel and Matthew Bellocchio of the Andover Organ Company, a team from the National Park Service documented the organ for the Historic American Engineering Record (HAER). (I was the historian on that team, and this article is based on the history I wrote for the documentation project.) This was the first time HAER had documented an organ, and its work laid the foundation for the landmark nomination, which the Village of Round Lake put forward after conversations with National Historic Landmark program staff, to make sure an organ could be eligible for landmark status.2

Round Lake is a picturesque 6oo-person community of shingled cottages and tall trees. At its heart stands an immense 2,000-seat auditorium. Long, wide, and straightforwardly built in the Stick style with a slender bell tower on one side, it attests to Round Lake's eventful past as a thriving Chautauqua where, for six decades, summer visitors found rest, recreation, Christian education, and culture on the banks of a circular lake. The auditorium was constructed in 1885 to shelter worshipers and was enlarged through the addition of an enclosed stage in 1888 for the presentation of grand choral festivals. The Davis & Ferris organ came to Round Lake at that time, brought north by rail after 40 years in New York City.

The organ dominates the auditorium's raised stage. …

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