Biltmore House is Final Concert Hall for Turn-of-the-Century Organ
In 1898, Ernest Skinner was a young man working for the Boston firm of Hutchings Organ Company, self-proclaimed as “the largest and best equipped church organ factory in America.” At the time, Skinner—who, in a few years, was to become the country’s premiere organ builder —was sent to repair a new-fangled electric organ in an Episcopal church in the mountains near Asheville, North Carolina.
The church, All Souls’ Episcopal, was built by George Vanderbilt, who had recently completed his 250-room French renaissance château, Biltmore House, located nearby. Vanderbilt knew the work of the Hutchings Company, which had built oak casework and a pipe facade destined for a second organ in the 72-feet high Banquet Hall of his new home.
What Mr. Vanderbilt did not know was that the second instrument, to be placed in the organ loft of Biltmore House, would take over a century to arrive.
And little did Ernest Skinner know, as he worked to repair the organ at All Souls’ in the village of Biltmore, that one of his future instruments would find permanent residence in Mr. Vanderbilt’s palatial mansion.
The journey has been one of coincidence and historical echoes.
In 1993, Mrs. Ethel Lewis of Rocky Mount, NC, contacted organ restorer John Farmer of Winston-Salem with the request that he evaluate an instrument that she had just inherited from her brother. Examination of the organ confirmed it to be a long-lost E.M. Skinner-designed organ, built in 1916 for a private home in Armonk, NY. Unlike church organs of the same time, “residence” organs were popular with wealthy families from the 1890s through 1929 and were usually, as predecessors of the theater organ, of the highest quality, many with automatic player rolls and percussion effects.
Farmer contacted William Cecil, George Vanderbilt’s grandson and owner of Biltmore, who shared the restorer’s enthusiasm for the possibility of installing the Skinner forced-air, dual keyboard organ at Biltmore House. After a century, the Banquet Hall would finally ring with the deep resonances of pipes and pedals.
And why hadn’t an organ console been put in place in George Vanderbilt’s mansion before 1999?
“It’s one of the mysteries of Biltmore,” said Richard King, vice president of Biltmore House. “We have records indicating Hutchings delivered an organ to Biltmore but that it was sent directly to All Souls’ Episcopal Church in Biltmore Village, the church founded and built by Vanderbilt when he started construction of the Estate. “While it is unclear whether the organ that arrived in town was intended for Biltmore House or the church,” explained King, “it’s possible that its final location was due to the request of Caryl Florio, a British musician who was choirmaster and organist at the church and whom Vanderbilt had retained as Biltmore’s resident composer."
In an 1897 letter from Florio to Charles McNamee, the general manager at Biltmore, the musician later complains that the Hutchings instrument, with all of its newfangled stops and pulls (electricity was still new, not to mention using electricity to power a musical instrument) was behaving unpredictably. Florio says, “I did hope that when Mr. Vanderbilt saw for himself how thoroughly unreliable an electric organ was, he would reconsider his determination...[and realize that] there is nothing better than the old ‘tracker’ organ with pneumatic action."
For whatever reason, Vanderbilt did hesitate and ultimately postponed purchasing an organ for Biltmore House and the pipes have remained mute for over a century. But now, after investing roughly $175,000 repairing and restoring Ethel Lewis’s instrument, Biltmore House is finally filled with the rich tones of Wagner, Strauss and Puccini.
Farmer’s work, which took three years to complete, included the restoration of two manual keyboards and a pedalboard playable with the feet. This console is housed in the organ loft of the Banquet Hall, and though guests are not able to see it overhead, the organ is played regularly throughout the day.
In addition, the organist is now able to control over 700 pipes grouped into 15 “ranks” or colors of sounds, which have all been carefully repaired, voiced and tuned by Farmer. While the original roll player mechanism allows non-musicians to “play” the organ, a new MIDI interface has also been included to allow for live performance recording to floppy disk for future playback.
Installation of the instrument in Biltmore House entailed re-instating an elaborate duct system to carry compressed air from the basement to the balcony, a design feature called for in the original architectural drawings by architect Richard Morris Hunt. That plan called for a compressor to be housed in the basement of Biltmore House with air shafts running over a story high into the organ loft. The empty shafts have been in place, awaiting completion for over 100 years.
The end result is a concert hall of both grand (the Banquet Hall is the largest of the 250 rooms in Biltmore House) and intimate (the room has perfect acoustics) proportions. The debut of the Biltmore House organ, recently held September 9, was undoubtedly, for the talented Ernest Skinner, the ultimate concert, a command performance, and the perfect reprise.
For more information about Biltmore, contact The Biltmore Company, One North Pack Square, Asheville, NC 28801, or phone 828-274-6333, or toll-free at 800-543-2961.