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Curtis Organ Rededication: Breathing New Life into Those Old Pipes

On Friday, October 11, the Rededication of the Curtis Organ will take place in Irvine Auditorium at 7:30 p.m. The concert, dedicated to the newly-restored Curtis Organ, will feature guest organist Walter Strony, considered to be one of America's premier concert organists. Mr. W.P. "Bill" Brown (WhG '55), who donated a new console for the organ will be at the rededication.

The Curtis Organ was built in 1926 by the Austin Organ Company of Hartford, Connecticut for the Sesquicentennial Exposition in Philadelphia, which commemorated the 150th anniversary of the signing of the United States' Declaration of Independence. Austin's Opus 1416 was to be an ideal "organist's organ," with Wesley S. Sears, Rollo Maitland, Frederick Maxon, and Henry S. Fry, prominent local organists, as consultants for its design. Austin completed the mammoth 162-rank organ in only six months, using assembly-line techniques for its many thousands of mechanical parts, and it was installed in time for the exposition's opening ceremony in June of 1926. The organ is an American Symphonic organ, designed during a period in American history when ordinary people had limited opportunities to hear a real symphony orchestra, and when municipalities considered it a duty to bring arts and music to their citizens. The instrument can produce lush, varied orchestral tonal colors for transcriptions, as well as all the majestic sounds of a great cathedral or concert organ.

Cyrus H. K. Curtis, publisher of the Saturday Evening Post, bought the organ from the financially troubled fair, and in November of 1927 donated the instrument to Penn for the nascent Irvine Auditorium, planned for construction. Irvine was built in 1928.

In September of 1984, the University proposed a renovation plan for Irvine Auditorium that considered eliminating the Curtis Organ. Because the plan drew protest from alumni as well as members of the University community who were involved with the organ's restoration, it was eventually shelved, and the Curtis Organ remained intact in the Great Hall of Irvine. In 1988, the Curtis Organ was officially recognized by the Organ Historic Society of America as an historically significant pipe organ for several unique features: it was built within six months; it is the largest instrument of its type to have been designed and executed within one contract; and it is one of the first, and largest musical instruments built during the Industrial Revolution using modular components made with assembly-line techniques.

In the summer of 1997, Irvine closed its doors for major renovations that improved the acoustics while preserving the aesthetic character of the historic building. During the renovation, Austin Organs Inc.--the original manufacturer of the Curtis Organ--removed the organ's pipes and console for storage at its factory. Subsequent to the completion of renovation of Irvine by Venturi, Scott Brown and Associates, Austin reinstalled the pipes and the new console and tuned and regulated the organ, and repaired the few damaged pipes. No tonal changes have been made.

The restoration of the Curtis Organ was made possible by generous contributions from alumni and friends as well as fundraisers sponsored by the Curtis Organ Restoration Society.


The new console (above) features a computer- based combination action and switching system with a color LCD display and touch screen controller and the ability to store up to 10,000 memory levels, a case of mahogany with hand carvings and inlay; turned coco-bolo drawknob shanks and eight cut ivory manual keys.


These are some of the more than 10,000 pipes, the largest being 36 feet tall.


Organ on stage


Closeup of organ

  Almanac, Vol. 49, No. 7, October 8, 2002


October 8, 2002
Volume 49 Number 7

An outdoor wireless LAN is now available for Penn faculty, staff and students in the center of campus.
Medical Ethics is now a department in the SOM, home to the Center for Bioethics.
Speaking Out about the incident in the Quad and parking in Garage 40.
The Lost Dinosaurs of Egypt--featuring the Penn-discovered Paralititan stromeri--come to life on A&E this week.
The Curtis Organ is back in Irvine, with a new state-of-the-art console, poised for its rededication concert.
The UPM launches Project F.A.R.E. with a dig at the Museum.
Remembering Walter Annenberg's lasting legacy.