[Retro Roadmap] The Great Organ at the Methuen Memorial Music Hall

Posted on: December 12th, 2013 by Beth Lennon 9 Comments

Methuen Music Hall Grand Organ. Credit: Beth Lennon, RetroRoadmap.org

Upon first glance the stately brick building with a bell tower on Broadway in Methuen, Mass., looks like it could be one of the many churches that dot the New England landscape. Viewing the understated decoration of the brick exterior, you’d never know the confection of delights both visual and aural, that await inside the Methuen Memorial Music Hall, built as the permanent home for the first concert organ in the country.

The organ for which this building was specifically created was originally built for the Boston Music Hall. Now known as the Orpheum Theatre, it is one of the nation’s oldest theaters, opening in 1852.

Hamilton Place entrance. Credit: Board of Trustees, Methuen Memorial Music Hall, Inc.
Boston Music Hall, 1896

In 1857 an arrangement was made with E.F. Walcker and Company of Ludwigsburg, Germany, to construct an “organ of first rate” for the Boston Music Hall. After a series of delays and cost overages, the organ was installed in the Music Hall in 1863, at a final cost of over $60,000.

For the next 21 years the organ was the centerpiece of the Boston Music Hall -- impressive in sound as well as look, with its imposing hand-carved case made of American black walnut and decorative pipes of burnished tin.

Methuen Music Hall Grand Organ cabinet. Credit: Beth Lennon, RetroRoadmap.org
Methuen Music Hall Grand Organ cabinet

But as they do today, tastes changed with the times, with the organ seeming outmoded. The founding of the Boston Symphony Orchestra in 1881 reflected these changing musical interests, and for a while both the BSO and the Great Organ jockeyed for precious stage space.

Despite protest, the organ was eventually sold for $5,000 with the hopes that it was to be donated to the New England Conservatory of Music. Those plans never came to fruition and the organ lay in storage for 13 years, finally being sold at auction for a mere $1,500 to Edward Francis Searles of Methuen.

Boston Symphony Orchestra. Credit: Board of Trustees, Methuen Memorial Music Hall, Inc.
Boston Symphony Orchestra, 1882

With an artistic background and independent wealth in the millions, Edward Francis Searles commissioned architect Henry Vaughan, designer of the National Cathedral in Washington D.C., to design a building worthy of housing the Great Organ. From the acoustics to the decor, everything was created with the intention of showcasing the instrument's workmanship and sound.

Though the hall was never meant to be used as a house of religion, the building follows the Latin Cross floor plan, and is currently a popular venue for weddings and other celebrations. The interior English baroque style design is in sharp contrast to the simple exterior of the Hall, much to the surprise of visitors.

The floors are laid with large marble tiles, the walls are dark oak panels with opulent brocade above, and Corinthian style pilasters add to the classical feeling of the space. The most striking of all the architectural features is the 65-foot-high Roman barrel vault ceiling, laden with an exuberance of plaster details highlighted by gilded accents.

The pipes of the Methuen Music Hall Grand Organ. Credit: MFRingel, Flickr

Finished in 1909 as the Serlo Organ Hall, it was never open to the public and used only for the private entertainment of Mr. Searles and his guests until his passing in 1920. From that time the hall and organ had a variety of owners until the mid-1940s when eight area residents formed a charitable corporation known as Methuen Memorial Music Hall, Inc. to acquire and establish the organ hall as a cultural center.

To this day the Methuen Memorial Music Hall is open to the public, primarily in the warmer months for organ recitals, and is a popular location for weddings and other celebrations.

Organist playing the Methuen Music Hall Grand Organ at Christmas. Credit: Beth Lennon, RetroRoadmap.org

A special highlight each December is the Christmas Concert and Holiday Open House. Holiday music is performed on the Great Organ including a Christmas carol sing-along. As it celebrates its 150th birthday, it is only fitting that the organ once again is able to delight the public with its impressive sound in unexpectedly impressive surroundings.

Visit Methuen Memorial Music Hall

Methuen Memorial Music Hall
92 Broadway
Methuen, MA 01844
(978) 685-0693

The National Trust for Historic Preservation works to save America's historic places. Join us today to help protect the places that matter to you.

Beth Lennon

Beth Lennon is the creator of the website RetroRoadmap.com. As "Mod Betty," she delights as the retro travel "hostess with the mostess," scouting out cool vintage places and sharing them with the world.


9 Responses

  1. Robert Darling

    December 19, 2013

    Wonderful introduction to this impressive building and to the remarkable purpose that created the building. The instrument longs to be heard. Bravi to the wonderful citizens of Methuen who make it available to all.

  2. Dot Jackson

    December 19, 2013

    This is wonderful, heart-lifting and encouraging to all of us for whom the arts are vital.
    Many thanks to all who have supported the preservation of this fine instrument and the hall where we hope it will live forever.

  3. Mimi Findlay

    December 19, 2013

    What is astounding to me, a dealer in American antiques of the mid 19th century, is that no one has mentioned the cabinet maker of the organ – GUSTAVE HERTER, one of the era’s major designers and craftsmen. Interior designer and cabinetmaker of the 1858 Ruggles Morse House in Portland, ME, “The Victoria Mansion,” as well as of the 1858 Lockwood-Mathews Mansion Museum in Norwalk CT – both National Historic Landmarks. having arrived in New York from Germany in 1848, one may surmise that the organ makers knew of his talents. In 1994, At the time of the Metropolitan Museum’s Exhibition “The Herter Brothers” this extraordinary work of Gustave Herter was unknown to the museum world.
    Edward Francis Searles, the young San Franciso agent for the Herter Brothers in the 1870’s, married the widow of Mark Hopkins, whose grand mansion they had completed several years earlier. They were married in 1887 while he was helping her build another palatial mansion in Great Barrington, MA, her birthplace. Four years later she died and he became a very wealthy man, enabling him to create this gorgeous music hall and and purchase Gustave Herter’s organ at auction.
    It could be the greatest example of an ensemble of carvings of the 19th century. And It sounds spectacular – worth a trip from anywhere!
    Mimi Findlay

  4. JIM

    December 19, 2013


  5. Dr. John Wilson

    December 19, 2013

    The gravel parking lot East of the building is the former site of the original E. M. Skinner organ factory, They merged with the Aeolian company in 1932 to become Aeolian Skinner. The Methuen organ was used as a demonstration instrument. Before Skinner, American organs tended to be tonally “incomplete”, even when large instrument, and put briefly, Aeolian-Skinner began to build better organs. The factory burned in 1943.

  6. Joan Staples

    December 19, 2013

    The radio program, Pipe Dreams, often broadcast by Chicago’s WFMT has sometimes featured by Methuen organ.

  7. Joan Staples

    December 19, 2013

    Correction to the above! The radio program, Pipe Dreams, broadcast by Chicago’s WFMT, has sometimes featured concerts on the Methuen organ.

  8. Raul Simon

    December 21, 2013

    It seems that organs have a hard time surviving anywhere in the world. It is really a pity, since they are such majestic instruments—in sight and in sound—.

  9. James Sheya

    January 6, 2014

    I bought a used 1992 Allen Organ MDS-35 in November, 2012, and the dealer told me that to his knowledge, only two students are enrolled in 2013 in the UCLA Music Department to eventually receive a music degree with an emphasis on organ. Then we wonder why our beautiful pipe organs remain silent and are now being replaced with pianos and string instruments. So very sad. We must preserve these wonderful and historic pipe organs and encourage students to learn to play them.