Each morning as he sat down to breakfast, George Eastman would be serenaded by live pipe organ music played by a musician who came daily to the the photography innovator’s home in Rochester, New York. Each evening for dinner, the organ music would again fill the whole home with its airy tones that could replicate nearly every instrument popular in the early 20th century. Sometime after his death when the house became a museum, this system of thousands of pipes was irreparably damaged by a fire. Now the North Organ Project at the George Eastman House is returning the massive organ to its blaring glory.
Eastman founded the Eastman Kodak Film Company and was integral in bringing photography to the mainstream, but he also was a lover of music, with the philanthropist starting the Eastman School of Music. “He tried playing the flute when he was younger, but not very well from what I gathered, so he went to being a spectator,” said Kathy Connor, Eastman Legacy Curator.
Throughout his 26 years in his Rochester home, which was built around having a pipe organ with the South Organ in 1905 and then the North Organ Chamber in 1918, there was a continuous expansion of the instrument. “It’s like a full orchestra is in your home,” Connor said, explaining the experience of the sound. Yet when Aeolian Organ Company which created the instrument closed shop in the 1930s, it became difficult to repair the organ. Through searching for parts on the internet, volunteers came across a whole Aeolian organ incredibly similar to Eastman’s being sold in California. The owner eventually decided to donate it and even throw in the shipping cost. It arrived in pieces last year and the installation of the astounding 2,329 pipes in the museum started this January, a collaborative effort between volunteers and the Parsons Pipe Organ Company. “The volunteers here are the passion behind this whole thing,” Connor said.
While the George Eastman House is best known as the oldest photography museum, music still plays a part, with performances a weekly occurrence as well as recitals with the local schools. This September 21 will be the debut concert for the organ, and then it will open to the public on September 22. Connor said that the hope is this will continue to cement Rochester as a center for organ music, where there are already several major organs in the city, including an Italian Baroque pipe organ at the Memorial Art Gallery and another at Christ Church. The prospect of this evolving mix of art and music would surely have thrilled Eastman.