Bostonia: The Alumni Magazine of Boston University

By Caleb Daniloff | Photos by Kalman Zabarsky | Summer 2011

There aren’t too many musical instruments large enough to walk through.

But make your way to the Metcalf Ballroom, on the second floor of the George Sherman Union, take the interior stairs, hang a left, jog up a couple of more steps, and you’ll be strolling through a veritable symphonic park, a small forest of silver pipes. Even silent, the John R. Silber Symphonic Organ is a stunning sight.

The instrument is 30 feet high and 100 feet wide, has 7,500 pipes, and weighs 22.5 tons. It consists of five lower glassed-in chambers set along a parquet promenade and three upper ones with unenclosed ranks, or sets of pipes—skylines of wood and steel high above the carpeted ballroom. Across from the glass chambers is an operations room, home to several consoles, each with enough keys, levers, and pedals to give an octopus trouble. An adjacent room contains a compact blowing plant packed with six enormous vintage turbines kicking out 33 horsepower of pneumatic force.

Restorer of organs Nelson Barden worked for 12 years in a specially designed studio at 808 Comm Ave. His team combined two magnificent organs into one that would fill the George Sherman Union ballroom with the sounds of cymbals, cellos, harps, flutes, and more.


Nelson Barden sprays a paper towel with glass cleaner and wipes down the ivory keys of a Skinner console. In the organ world, Barden is famous for his restoration work on organs at the Groton School in Groton, Mass., at Boston’s Church of the Advent and Old South Church, and his just-finished eight-year rehabilitation of the largest residence organ in the world, at Longwood Gardens near Philadelphia. But it was his extensive restoration, and fusion, of two residence organs donated to Boston University that put his name on the lips of enthusiasts around the globe.

For 12 years during the 1980s and early ’90s, Nelson Barden & Associates were BU’s restorers-in-residence, working in a specially designed studio in the Fuller Building at 808 Comm Ave. Spread before his team were bits and chunks of two player organs (instruments that play automatically without organists). The first was a water-damaged 12-rank 1930 Skinner, Opus 764, originally installed in the home of Percy Rockefeller in Greenwich, Conn., donated by John Robinson, then secretary of the University’s Board of Trustees, in 1981. Not long after, Board chair Arthur G. B. Metcalf (SED’35, Hon.’74) donated a 23-rank 1930 Aeolian, Opus 1783, organ from his Winchester home, which had been built for a previous owner, Boston candymaker William Schrafft.

“Wealthy people had pipe organs in their homes as a status symbol and for musical entertainment,” Barden says. “They were incredibly costly items. And most of the people who bought them were not organists and so they had to be operated by paper rolls.”

Symphony enthusiast Metcalf had a vision: restore both instruments and combine them into a larger musical entity that could regularly fill the GSU ballroom (which was later named after him) with the sounds of cymbals, cellos, violins, harps, chimes, xylophones, flutes, tubas—the list goes on.

A Computer Before Computers

One element—a giant wooden panel of wires, ducts, jacks, leather, and lights—accompanying the donated water-stained Skinner organ puzzled Barden. It came with a patent, dated July 25, 1916, but it showed only the wiring layout, not how it operated. Worse, many of the wires had been chewed by rats. “That’s the player relay,” an old Skinner worker told Barden. “It was a secret project.” After months of contemplation and tinkering and trial and error, Barden got the thing to cough up some sound. From there, he was able to connect the actions of the machine to the pipes of the organ. The player relay allowed the instrument to produce more notes than a traditional punched paper roll. Barden realized that for the past year he’d had his fingers in the guts of a binary computer patented eight years before IBM was formed and decades before keyboards and monitors were even concepts.

“The instrument is important because of what it was originally, which was a computer—a minimalist computer that was operated by 12 volts DC, just like a car today, and air pressure,” Barden says. “And the combination of those two things produced a mechanism that actually could do rudimentary computer functions. The memory storage was punched paper rolls. As the roll unfurled, the mechanism took that information and translated it into the impulses that drove the pipe organ.”

During the project, additions from other vintage Skinner and Aeolian organs swelled the instrument from 35 to 62 ranks. Thousands of visitors descended on Barden’s Comm Ave studio to study and gawk at the restored instrument. Barden and his staff gave hundreds of demos, and during the 1990 American Guild of Organists National Convention, held in Boston, the organ’s late-night performances were a conference highlight. Barden and the BU organ ended up the subject of an episode of the PBS series Restoration Stories.

In 1993, the restored and fused symphonic organ, now operated by a modern-day computer that had translated the musical information on the paper rolls into digital form, was relocated to the Metcalf Ballroom and dedicated in honor of John Silber (Hon.’95), BU’s seventh president. A third black console was added and was intended to live in a display room at the top of the stairs, where it could easily be wheeled out for public performances.

The room was never built.

Metcalf had envisioned the organ playing every day at lunchtime, among other things, but after he retired in 1994, funding fell off and interest in the unusual instrument dropped.

Except among the few.

Robert Kotiuga, a College of Engineering associate professor, brings the students taking his Electric Guitar as Gateway to Electro Acoustics course on a field trip to the ballroom’s second floor. “It’s a marvelous snapshot in the development of modern technology,” he says, “and a fantastic primary source for understanding the social implications of evolving technology.”

Robert Kotiuga, an ENG associate professor of engineering, leads his classes on tours of the organ.

Triumphant Sounds

Although Barden wrapped up the project years ago, the organ restorer is clearly still attached to his gargantuan beauty. He buffs the ivory stops on the console until they shine, then heads into the blower room. When he throws the switch, it sounds like jet engines and the room feels like it might lift off. Barden steps over to the computer, fires up the monitor, punches in some DOS commands, hits enter, and George Cobb’s “Russian Rag” starts pouring through the building. The massive wooden shutters in the upper wall open and close, unleashing waves of music into the air. Behind the glass chamber doors, myriad pipes open and close while felted hammers strike strings. The huge carpeted room is enveloped as if in a dust storm.

“There are very few 1920s symphonic residence organs that are still left in playable condition,” Barden says. “As far as I know, only four are completely restored with this particular mechanism to drive them. Possible future uses should certainly entail bringing classes to see this thing in operation. Right here in BU you’ve got a working 1916 computer. This really should be in the history of things here.” ■

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On 2 June 2013 at 3:34 PM, Robert Kieronski wrote:

Please let us know if there is a performance schedule. Myself and friends would travel a considerable distance to hear it play.

On 21 August 2011 at 7:47 PM, Ken wrote:

I'd love to know when performances of the organ are conducted. I haven't been able to find any schedule.

On 3 August 2011 at 2:08 PM, Tom Daley wrote:

Great piece, especially since I got to see some of the reconstruction underway. Of particular interest is the Skinner Organ at the George Eastman House (Rochester, NY) which has a circa 1907 roll player which is incredibly similar (though behind the console) to the one we have here. The Eastman (Kodak) house has a large number of rolls to choose from, and in June the instrument was undergoing a rebuild. If you like this one, you owe it to yourself to see one of these instruments as they were actually installed in a mansion!

On 29 July 2011 at 5:17 PM, Allen Cavedo (CGS'74) wrote:

Excellent article and video. I had no idea this organ existed at BU. Surely there must be recordings of organ performances, where might they be heard?

On 28 July 2011 at 3:06 PM, Ann OConnell (SAR'61) wrote:

Wish I had known about this when I attended my 50th reunion in May.....I would have loved to hear it!

On 20 July 2011 at 10:58 PM, leanne robinson (CAS'66) wrote:

When can we hear it?

On 18 July 2011 at 4:49 PM, adri (CAS'83) wrote:

As a former BU student, and as a pt organist I really enjoyed this interesting article, and the video adds a wonderful touch.

On 16 July 2011 at 12:23 PM, Mary Ann Peterson (SON'63) wrote:

Amazing story—just too bad your video doesn't include sound!!! I now live in Florida and it is just too far away to go hear it, but would really love to. Any possibility?

On 14 July 2011 at 9:23 AM, Rostron J. Kershaw (SED'74) wrote:

I recently received the Bostonian News, and was astonished to see the article, BU's Musical Jewel. This article brought back loving memories of my late father Rostron Kershaw who was a Church Pipe Organ builder. My father was mentored by Ernest M. Skinner, before WWII.

On a recent trip to Boston, I had the pleasure of playing one of my Fathers' instruments in the town of Chelmsford, MA. On my next trip to Boston, I will definitly stop and visit BU to experience this magnificant instrument, and hopefully will have the oportunity to hear it played.

Thanking you for a wonderful article, which has made my day. P.S. Have you been in touch with Charlie Fisk...Tracker Action Mfg.?

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