Knavery and Serendipity: The Odell organ at Troy Music Hall
It is almost bizarre to look at a long-familiar facade and come into awareness of its iconic status. I have a print of a photo of Odell opus 190 at Troy Music Hall, given to me by my friend Victor Hoyt. It hangs here in the office at the shop.
The case of the organ at Troy is memorable and distinct; colleagues have thrown around various terms to describe it; Italianate, Renaissance, Beaux Arts, Greek revival, et al, but in truth it is an interpretation of the Classical orders. The case has 3 pediments in an iterative pattern: two surbaissé, with a sans retoure in the center. The entablature is composed of a small cornice, decorated frieze and architrave, set atop a series of Corinthian-hybrid columns framing 5 alternating flats of facade pipes. Each flat is further flanked by two additional one-quarter columns, upon which rests a semicircular pipe shade. This a detail borrowed from Odell case designs such as opus 178 at St. Charles. These columns and flats are all set over an impost and decorated panels. Close inspection of the lower section of the columns shows a mixture of detailing: the faces are fluted, but then break to a dotted detail from roughly one-third down in a manner that implies the rustication one might expect in a Classical facade, but otherwise leaves a plain column base with some stencil work before it connects to the impost.
The pipes are likewise decorated — “ornamented in gold and colors” as the contract language was so frequently given to say. If you look closer you can note how the cutups of the pipes in the outer flats are significantly higher than average, as well as the contrast of the center flat of pipes. This I suspect part of the effort to louden the diapason choruses to fill the room. The longer center pipes were added when the organ was relocated from the Belden residence to Troy, and while they are made of Belgian zinc like the rest, they are gilded with aluminum leaf, a metal regarded as equally (if not more) precious than gold at the time.
I had an opportunity to crawl through the organ in 2002 thanks to my friend Al Fedak. I was in the process of re-installing the well-known Skinner organ at his church, Westminster Presbyterian in Albany — my “last hurrah” for Austin (or so I thought at the time, that’s another story). I had of course known the organ by its reputation for years and did not want to squander the opportunity while working so close by. On a cold weekend afternoon Al and I drove over and were granted access, always a thorny thing to arrange as the Music Hall staff were traditionally wary of “organ people” and their passionate interest. My name helped us get in, naturally.
I have before attempted to describe what it is like for me to step into an untouched historic Odell instrument. It is in many ways like setting foot in the house one grew up in, albeit one that has been for many years lay abandoned. You look around and the shapes are immediately familiar, but also covered in darkness and dirt. You learn to look past that for telltale signs: graffiti from the workmen, maker’s marks from the pipe makers and voicers, as well as the unsigned handwork you’ve seen in dozens of other places. I’m always on the lookout for Henry Radzinski’s flawless dovetails and Thomas Robjohn’s straight-as-an-arrow cutups.
What I was unprepared for is the utter grandeur of the room and the organ’s central place in it. Troy’s Music Hall is in many ways a place visually frozen in time, but the room is equally prized for the acoustic, which it serendipitously owes to the presence of the Odell organ and case. As noted in the excellent history written by Stephen Pinel, the eventual placement of the organ at Troy was a rare confluence of knavery and bad fortune (or good, depending on the perspective). Its previous owner, William Belden, was a contemporary of Jay Gould, a kind of low-rent “Diamond” Jim Brady. In other words, a man of outsize wealth and appetites who - like many robber-barons of the Gilded Age - commissioned an organ for his opulent residence, in his case a home on 5th Avenue in Manhattan. A failed attempt to corner the gold market in 1869 led to his eventual financial ruin, and within a decade the organ became the property of the Troy Savings Bank, brokered to satisfy a debt. The organ was rearranged and a new case designed (you can read further details about that here). A 32’ for the pedal was among the Odells' suggested additions prior to the move, but that proposal was politely declined by the Bank.
While the organ is ideally placed in the room, it is situated in an odd way. The key desk is at the far left side of the organ and hidden by a curtain. It and the Great and Swell are set transverse to the stage. When you sit at the keyboards, you can look up directly into the side of the organ case and see the Great division behind a metal grille. The Swell is directly behind that and the action is arranged as one often finds on instruments of such vintage: stickers and backfall levers for the Great (with offset rollers), and stickers and a pair of square rails for the Swell, with a roller board to translate the keyboard scale to an “A” chest configuration: diatonic, with the basses in the center. This arrangement is devised so the tuner can readily reach the flues from either side of the enclosure via hinged access doors. The action for the third manual division is where things get tricky: trackers run down to a square rail and then under the Great and Swell, then from there into an angled, transverse square rail that turns the action 90 degrees clockwise to line up with the Solo and reed chests. The pedal trackers make a similar journey, all the way to the opposite side of the case.
By modern standards of mechanical action this all seems unwieldy, if not Byzantine, and I can’t help but wonder how well the arrangement worked in the decades after the installation. As is well documented, until the work done in 2006 the organ had been silent since the 1960s. I fielded calls from John Schreiner looking for tips on regulating the action in the runup to the convention while we were working on the double-rise high pressure reservoir. Even in its rough state, the sound of the instrument is exciting and assertive.
You can hear a clip of the organ from the OHS convention in the YouTube video above. It is also featured (but not heard) in scenes from an early Merchant-Ivory film: The Bostonians, based on the novel by Henry James.