The Saga of the Academy High Pipe Organ

Academy Pipe Organ Photo provided by Organ Supply Industries, Inc.

Academy Pipe Organ
Photo provided by Organ Supply Industries, Inc.

Can you imagine a 21st century school district and community raising $176,000 for a single musical instrument? Can you fathom that the equivalent of that figure was raised in Erie, PA, for a pipe organ in the midst of the Great Depression? In these days of STEM obsession, it’s important to remember that the arts were once so revered. Read how a community’s dream for a pipe organ came true, only to be forgotten, eventually leading to the instrument’s demise.

William Dimorier, the man who put Erie, PA, high-school sports on the map in the early 20th century, and who led the fundraising efforts for Ainsworth Field and Veterans Stadium, also had a deep appreciation for music. His love of music inspired him to support the Academy High School choirs both financially and as business manager.

In early 1930, Dimorier again undertook a major fundraising project. This time it was not focused on a sports arena, but rather the arts, specifically, a pipe organ for the Academy High School auditorium. It is interesting that at such a low point in United States economic history, a single, massive, musical instrument would receive widespread support from the community.

Newspaper Runs Special Supplement for Pipe Organ Appeal

On Monday, March 17, 1930, the Erie Daily Times ran the “Academy H.S. Pipe Organ Edition,” which included funding appeals and many music-related stories. The section opened with Dimorier’s statement thanking the Erie Daily Times, its publisher, John J. Mead, Sr., and all of the advertisers who participated in the issue. He added:

It was a big undertaking to raise four thousand dollars, and when we found that the organ we originally planned was not suited to our needs and that we should have to raise one or two thousand dollars more we were up against a real problem even for a high school of our size. However, with the help you all have given us the task has been a pleasant one, and will no doubt be a complete one. . . The pipe organ will be one of the best in the city, something that everyone may mention with pride. We hope it will be an inspiration to the thousands who in the years to come are to have the privilege of hearing it played.[i]

William E. Dimorier

William E. Dimorier

In a full-length photo, a thin-looking Dimorier, wearing a hat and overcoat, points his arm into the distance. The caption reads, “Dimmy,” and refers to him as “commander of the forces under Major Gen. McNary, who made the Academy Pipe Organ Edition of the Erie Daily Times possible today.”

One article discussed the financial challenges faced by music programs. There is no byline, but it began, “When the writer came to Erie more than twenty years ago,” which would fit Dimorier’s tenure with the district at that point in time. The article contrasted the amount of money spent on music programs, when the writer arrived (a few hundred dollars) with the amount spent in 1929 (more than $11,000), much of the funding coming from “entertainments” produced for the community.[ii]

Pipe Organ Would Carry Listeners Away In Rapturous Delight

An article in the supplement, written by the organ’s designer (John A. Bell, organist, First Presbyterian Church, Pittsburgh), cited music as an important high-school subject. He argued that music builds character and that to “fully cope with other seats of learning and to achieve the ultimate in education,” a great pipe organ was essential. “An organ with capabilities to master all modern demands in music, to teach on it all that is artistic, elevating and lovely—an organ that is designed to sway and carry away in rapturous delight its listeners.”

Bell predicted that the organ would, “prove to be a source of continuous delight to schools as well as the community, and what is more, a source of revenue, as it will be used for public recitals and other functions, which are so well patronized in other communities . . . ”[iii]

Another article referred to the pipe organ as a “long-cherished dream” to fulfill a “long-felt need.” Referred to as the “king of instruments,” it would accompany assembly singing, creating more enthusiasm than a piano. The piece stated that there was no community organ, and Academy’s could be used throughout the year for recitals, as in many larger cities of the day.[iv]

Erie School District Superintendent John C. Diehl, a music lover himself, also penned an article, congratulating the students and teachers of Academy on the spirit they had shown to acquire a pipe organ. He quoted John Sebastian Bach, calling the pipe organ, “God’s voice.” Diehl concluded, “We feel confident that the pipe organ at Academy will speak in a way to inspire hope, courage, cheer, ambition, joy and reverence.”[v]

Finally, in the form of a letter, “How You Can Help Academy,” the students thanked the advertisers and the Erie Daily Times for their support. The message said the school board had appropriated $4,000, and that Academy would raise the $2,000 remainder. Contributions would be appreciated, no matter how small.

Community Raises Twice the Goal; Organ Installed

On Tuesday, January 13, 1931, after Dimorier returned from his usual holiday visit to his hometown, Afton, New York, the pipe organ, long-time dream of many, was dedicated.

The instrument had been designed by Dr. John A. Bell, organist for the First Presbyterian Church in Pittsburgh, and was built in Erie by the Organ Supply Corporation. The National Company built the pipes, and W.A. Sommerhof Organ Company handled installation.[vi]

The pipe organ, originally estimated at a price of $6,000, actually cost $12,000, which would be the equivalent of more than $176,000 in 2016. With so much emphasis on STEM-focused education in the 21st century, it’s remarkable that long ago a massive project focused on music education and enjoyment.

Approximately 1,300 people attended the pipe organ’s dedication during which, several prominent area musicians took turns on the new instrument. The Academy girls’ chorus, boys’ glee club, and school orchestra performed. The newspaper reported, “The program was enthusiastically received by the large and appreciative audience. The organ is beautifully toned and is one of the finest instruments in the city.”[vii] The reporter also stated that arrangements were being made for students in the area, studying organ, to be able to use the new instrument.

Enthusiasm remained high for the pipe organ that year, as the write up in the 1931 Academe (Academy yearbook) indicated. It said the organ, with its 3 manuals, 34 stops, and 2,438 pipes, had been a dream for many years. “With the installation of the organ a new field of music has been opened to the students of Academy; not only to those of today, but to the students of the future. It is one of the few organs of the State, and the only school organ in our city.”[viii]

The Demise of the Academy High Pipe Organ

Academy Organ from Erie Daily Times article.

Academy Organ from Erie Daily Times article.

Unfortunately, just 10 years later, the organ was defunct, according to an undated Erie Daily Times article, “Academy Pipe Organ Peals a Sour Note.” The clipping shows the organ tucked under the stage, and it is described as, the “$11,645 white elephant.”

Bruce McIntyre, a reporter for the Erie Daily Times, wrote the story after launching an investigation into the “lost organ.”[ix] The article quoted Dimorier as predicting, when the instrument was installed, that it would be “something that everyone may mention with pride,” and that local organists would “be invited to play short recitals.” The prediction was not accurate.

The problem, apparently, was with the installation. The quality of the instrument’s sound had been compromised, because the pipes had been installed behind the stage curtains. “It gave off a sort of muffled roar,” said Bob Eaton, a former student who played the pipe organ in 1947. This contradicts the newspaper report of its beautiful tone at the dedication.

Eaton said while he was a student, an organ-repair company offered to donate new parts for the decaying instrument, but the school district turned down the offer. “The firm which made the organ was so dismayed by the state it was in, that it asked me to remove the nameplate. . . .”

No Funds to Make Things Right With the Pipe Organ

Obed Grender, the choir director, was quoted as saying that the only way to remedy the sound issue would have been to move the pipes closer to the auditorium and cut holes in the wall to free the sound. But no one holding the purse strings saw feasibility in saving the organ.

Also interviewed for the article was Guy Minadeo, principal of Academy from 1956 to 1958. He said it would be a waste of money to repair the instrument and that it was worth nothing but junk. “You could buy a new electric organ for a fraction of the repair cost.”

At the time the article was written, half of the pipes had been removed and the remainder were clustered on the left side of the stage. Most of the wiring had deteriorated. The school district confirmed that in 1946, it had received an estimate of $1,000 to repair the organ, and by the mid 1950s, the figure had grown to $5,000.

What did William Dimorier think of the organ’s installation? Was the sound issue an elephant in the room that no one discussed until it was too late? What did he think about the fact that the object of his fundraising efforts had become a white elephant? We may never know, however, we do know how he felt about organ music, from his Day Book among some song lines.

The organ’s deep bass is the voice of the thunder,

It stirs the soul nobly and fills it with wonder.[x]

Sources:

[i] W.E. Dimorier, “An Appreciation,” Erie Daily Times, March 17, 1930, 1.

[ii] “Money Expended on Music Result of Entertainments,” Erie Daily Times, March 17, 1930, 1.

[iii]“Cite Music as Important Subject in Academy High School’s Curriculum; Aids Character Building,” Erie Daily Times, March 17, 1930, 3.

[iv] “New Organ at Academy Hi Will Fill Long Felt Need,” Erie Daily Times, March 17, 1930, 3.

[v] “J.C. Diehl Congratulates Spirit in Obtaining Organ,” Erie Daily Times, March 17, 1930, 3.

[vi] “Will Dedicate New Organ at Academy High,” Erie Dispatch, January 13, 1931, 3.

[vii] “1,300 Attend Dedication of Academy’s $12,000 Organ,” Erie Daily Times, January 14, 1931, 23.

[viii] “The Academy Pipe Organ,” Academe, 1931, 12.

[ix] Bruce McIntyre, “Academy Pipe Organ Peals a Sour Note,” Erie Daily Times, approximately 1957.

[x] Day Book, 67 and Rhymes and Some Reason, 16.

This blog post is adapted from the manuscript: Facing the Wind: The Life of William E. Dimorier (working title).

Ann Silverthorn writes about a wide variety of topics in numerous genres. She recently completed a biography of William E. Dimorier (1871-1951), a poet and educator, who dedicated his life to service and leadership. Several new projects are underway.

Facebook: www.facebook.com/AnnSilverthorn

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Posted in Culture, Dimorier, Music, Northwest PA

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