Clayton's orchestrion pipes up for Frick Art and Historical Center event


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An orchestra was giving a rousing rendition of a medley of tunes from the musical "Oklahoma!" written by Rodgers and Hammerstein. It had no conductor, but, as if on cue, it suddenly stopped in the middle of the music.

"It's just like a bad child," organ restorer Durward Center said.

He made a quick adjustment to the orchestrion at Clayton, the Point Breeze home of the Frick family, and the instrument revved up to complete the piece.

A look at the Frick orchestrion

Durward Center restored and has been tuning the Frick orchestrion for 22 years. (Video by Rebecca Droke; 10/18/2013)

Anyone who has been to the Victorian mansion at the center of the Frick Art and Historical Center has seen the orchestrion, a self-playing pipe organ demonstrated at the end of every tour. Until Tuesday, however, few had seen Mr. Center, who restored it in 1989.

Mr. Center dismantled the roughly 3,000-pound instrument and brought it to his Baltimore workshop, where he spent the next two years working on it. Others had done work on it, though they may have caused more harm than good, he said, and the organ was unplayable when he first encountered it.

Mr. Center kept the oak casing intact, as well as the instrument's roughly 250 tin, brass and wooden pipes. He did replace the old leather on the bellows with new lamb, cow, goat and kangaroo skin. He took it apart again, brought it back to Pittsburgh and reassembled it in 1991.

Ever since, Mr. Center has returned twice a year to retune the orchestrion when Clayton is closed. This time, the museum decided to tap into his unique knowledge, putting together a session for docents and Tuesday evening's sold-out program for 30 interested museumgoers.

In 1892, when the Fricks remodeled Clayton and made it bigger, they also decided to add an orchestrion.

"It's kind of a showpiece for their new home, in a way," said Amanda Dunyak Gillen, director of education.

While it was originally weight-driven, the instrument was electrified in 1904. The electric motor runs the bellows (think of the compressible middle of an accordion), which push air into the spinning, perforated roll of music and the pipes.

"The roll is an early form of computer storage," said Mr. Center. He compared it to binary code, in that sounds are created only when air goes through the perforations.

The pipes replicate trumpet, trombone, clarinet, flute and piccolo sounds. The orchestrion also has a real triangle, snare drum, bass drum and cymbal inside.

Designed for orchestral and operatic music, orchestrions play music ranging from Brahms and Mendelssohn to fox trots and two-steps. People who were able to afford them could store several rolls and add new ones to their collection.

"To have music in your home like this would be remarkable," said Mrs. Gillen.

In Pittsburgh, the Mellons had an orchestrion, and the Snyders had six -- one at their Sewickley home and five on boats. There were likely others in private homes and commercial locations such as restaurants and saloons.

Although he didn't own one himself, Andrew Carnegie encouraged Henry Clay Frick to purchase one in a letter Mrs. Gillen read at the event. The Welte Style 6 cost $5,000 plus freight shipping, Carnegie wrote.

"They were considered musical status symbols for the home," said Mr. Center.

The growth of sound recordings, the Great Depression, World War II scrap drives and normal wear and tear all contributed to the decline of the orchestrion. Roughly 45 of the Welte brand are still around. Only three remain in their original locations -- the one at Clayton, another at the Asa Packer Mansion Museum in Jim Thorpe, Pa., and a third at an ice cream parlor in Columbus, Ind. Of the Welte Style 6, just four originals are left.

Even rarer are people trained to fix them. Mr. Center estimated that he is one of six full-time restorers in the country.

As a child in Kentucky, he studied pipe organ, but he soon discovered he had little talent for it. He had a knack for mechanical projects, though, and even built a pipe organ in his parents' garage. Throughout high school, he took on apprenticeships and eventually worked at the Smithsonian Institution. While every instrument presents unique challenges in the restoration process, tuning has become old hat.

"I can almost do it in my sleep," he said.


Correction, posted Oct. 18, 2013: The story was corrected to show that the orchestrion also has a cymbal inside.

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Elizabeth Bloom: ebloom@post-gazette.com, 412-263-1750 or on Twitter @BloomPG. Measured Words blog: www.post-gazette.com/measuredwords. First Published October 17, 2013 8:00 PM


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