McCandless Hall, Athens State University
Project Completed 2014
Athens State University, founded in 1822, began as a women’s college and is the oldest learning institution in Alabama. Its impressive campus has three buildings on the National Register of Historic Places to include McCandless Hall which was built in 1912. Last year we removed the 1892 George Kilgen and Son tracker organ to make way for a complete renovation of the hall. We worked closely with Mr. Jerry Bradford, who is the university’s staff engineer in charge of facilities. Under his watchful eye, most of the older buildings on campus have been renovated.
The Kilgen organ was first installed in the First Methodist Church in Athens, Alabama. In 1925, the church was given a $500.00 credit towards a new Pilcher organ. Pilcher removed the Kilgen and re-installed it in McCandless Hall. The Kilgen family tradition of building pipe organs originates with Sebastian Kilgen. He was a French Huguenot (Calinist) who fled to Germany to avoid religious persecution. He took refuge in a monastery near Durlach where he learned organ building from the monks and in 1640 built his first organ.
The succeeding generations of Kilgens built organs in Durlach for over 200 years before George moved to New York in 1850. He worked for Jardine for a short time before he built his own shop. In 1873, he moved his shop and family to St. Louis. His son Charles joined the firm in 1886. Charles later succeeded his father as the head of the company and guided it during its most productive years.
We approached this project with enthusiasm and a little apprehension. We have done many historical restorations of mechanical instruments in the past, but we had yet to do a stenciled façade. We communicated with Marylou Davis, an expert on stenciling, and she gave us some valuable advice which helped us to complete this task. The façade pipes had been painted silver, but with delicate use of paint thinner, we were able to expose the original stenciled design. We traced over the designs onto Mylar, a clear thin plastic. Then we cut out the designs to produce twenty-four different stencils.
After comparing the existing colors with hundreds of samples, we settled on fifteen different colors. We used extra help to keep labor costs down, but the stenciling still exceeded our estimate. The feeder bellows and hand pump arm were not tossed out when a blower was added many years ago, so we were able to restore the hand pump system. We also installed a back flap in the wind line to the blower to allow the feeder bellows to fill the main, multi-fold bellows. We replaced the inoperable blower with a quiet, sleeve bearing, German blower that is situated to the left of the Swell box. The thick leather and felt that was applied to the pallets one-hundred, twenty-two years ago was retained.
The wooden trackers were still pliable and other than a few that were broken, were retained. The organ was installed in a room behind a presidium arch. This location, along with thick theatrical drapes that were positioned in front, greatly restricted the full egress of sound. The hall was to continue having theatrical productions, so we encouraged the architect to allow a portion of the organ to move forward of the arch and to install draperies that were light weight. Moving the organ forward also allowed for better access to the pump mechanism and allowed for a rear access door to the Swell division. For better access, we added new ladders and walkboards to the Swell and Great divisions. We felt these practical improvements did not take away from the authenticity of the historic organ.
Fortunately, the organ received very little service work during the 80+ years it was in McCandless Hall. As a result, the pipework was in pristine shape. We retained all of the original tuning scrolls and the pitch of A435. During the careful cleaning and the restoration of the pipework, we discovered the string stops of the organ were built by A. Gottfried & Company. , who was considered the finest pipe maker in the country. Tonally, we retained the volume levels set by the builder within each rank with only minimal blending within individual ranks.
The organ was well received and we believe that Sebastian Kilgen would be proud of the organ his predecessors had built and fascinated by the blower that was built not far from the monastery where it all started.
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