Millionaires and Pipe Dreams
Methuen’s mysterious role in bringing the pipe organ to America.
[Editor’s note: We are publishing this article as it was presented back in 2006 (with only minor edits) in memoriam of Ed Sampson, who passed away in January at the age of 77.]
Like its neighbors lining the banks of the Merrimack River, Methuen’s history recounts the modest narratives of mill workers, farmers, business owners, and even the legends of a few token millionaires. And like any small town turned suburban city, Methuen bustles with new housing developments and strip malls like the Loop. However, upon closer inspection, nestled at the heart of its downtown, Methuen possesses an unexpected historic distinction: It is home to the first — and one very highly revered — concert organ in the United States. Presently residing in the Methuen Memorial Music Hall along Broadway, this organ’s pipes continue to resound, reverberating a tale that started exactly 150 years ago.
The organ’s story begins in the pipe dreams of a Boston physician who had the ambition to bring a pipe organ of the finest quality to America during the mid-nineteenth century. Determined to establish a major arts and cultural center in Boston, Jabez Baxter Upham (1820-1902), president of the Boston Music Hall (now the Orpheum Theater), procured $25,000 to contract the building of a concert organ in 1856 — a considerable sum even in his time. However, the project encountered delays as the Civil War erupted and construction extended beyond the expected time frame and budget. Seven years and an additional $35,000 later, the first American pipe organ played its first note in the Boston Music Hall.
Constructed by German builders E.F. Walcker and Company and housed in an American black walnut case designed by the Herter Brothers of New York, the “Great Organ” enjoyed over twenty years of music-making celebrity in Boston. Unfortunately for the organ, the music scene shifted; in 1881 the Boston Symphony Orchestra formed and soon drew Bostonians’ attention away from the organ. As the popular orchestra grew in size and required more space, the organ became a massive nuisance. Upham insisted the organ stay, but in 1884 the orchestra won the competition and the organ was put up for sale. William Grover, a gentleman aspiring to donate it to the New England Conservatory of Music purchased the organ for $5000, but failed to do so before his death. Dismantled and interred in storage, the organ vanished for thirteen years, collecting dust and fading from public memory. Finally, in 1897 during an auction to settle Grover’s estate, a man with a proclivity for concert organs bid a paltry $1500 on the organ, and sent it north to his home in Methuen. His name was Francis Edward Searles.
The story of Francis Edward Searles (1841-1920) reads like that of the classic, self-made American. Born in Methuen to a family of mill workers and farmers, Searles survived a difficult childhood, losing his father at age 3 and working at age 12 in a local mill and Lawrence dry goods store to support his widowed mother and older brother.
In spite of the economic pressures on him and his family, Searles was drawn to the arts as a child. He found ways to cultivate his artistic sense, taking piano lessons and eventually giving them himself to earn a living. Later, he learned to play the organ in Boston where he was attending art school to study architectural design.
Once trained, Searles took his skills to Paul and Company, a Boston-based interior decoration firm, where he became a successful salesman with a significant salary. Seven years later, he was offered employment at Herter Brothers, a top interior design firm in New York City and coincidentally, the one that designed the Boston Music Hall organ case years earlier. Such an opportunity — working with some of the wealthiest clients in the United States, including the Vanderbilts — not only earned Searles considerable income, but led to a fortuitous romance. Mary Frances Sherwood Hopkins — the affluent widow of one of the founders of the Central Pacific Railroad and Herter Brothers client — was equally passionate about architecture and interior design. Despite that she was twenty-two years his elder, the two married. Their romance, although a pleasure, was short-lived, as Hopkins died just four years later in 1891, leaving her entire estate to Searles. Consequently, Searles’ personal fortune reached new heights, affording him the ability to further entertain his passion for art and architecture with numerous properties. Today Searles’ architectural indulgences pervade Methuen as well as areas in Salem and Windham, New Hampshire, Rhode Island, and Maine. But of all these, Serlo Organ Hall — now the Methuen Memorial Music Hall — was the only built solely for housing a musical instrument; namely, his pipe organ.
In 1899, Searles began plans to build the Serlo Music Hall. He commissioned the famous English architect Henry Vaughan, known for designing churches including the National Cathedral in Washington, D.C., to build a structure to house the precious organ. Construction of the Serlo Music Hall took ten years as Vaughn heavily referenced the most ornamented of European styles for an Anglo-Dutch, Italian exterior and English Baroque interior. Rising dramatically above nearby buildings, the hall’s 65-foot brick walls, bell tower, and sharp gables mimic the vertical facades of Gothic cathedrals while the delicate, ornate interior echoes those in the elaborate, eighteenth-century English churches. Soaring over Corinthian pilasters and protruding busts of Beethoven and Bach, the barrel-vaulted ceilings are layered thick with gilded and plastered rosettes and cherubs. All of this beauty, however, Searles intended for himself alone, as Serlo Hall served as a source of private entertainment for the millionaire throughout his lifetime.
Today, all may partake in the musical and architectural beauty of Searles’ music hall. After his death in 1920, the hall changed hands numerous times, passing from one inheritor or buyer to the next. In 1931, prominent organ builder Ernest M. Skinner acquired the hall and was first to showcase public performances, but the poor economy the United States faced during World War II closed the hall’s doors once again in 1943. Nearly catching fire during nearby conflagration, the hall was spared and finally brought back to life by the hands of eight community members who formed a charitable corporation under the name of Methuen Memorial Music Hall, Inc. (MMMH) in 1946. Sixty years later, a group of thirty committed trustees continue to maintain, publicize, and share the artistic marvels of Searles’ hall and organ with Methuen and the Merrimack Valley — all as volunteers.
Overseeing every pipe, pilaster, and patron, Ed Sampson, Jr., president of Methuen Memorial Music Hall, Inc. is an engineer by day, ticket-seller by night (among other sundry duties he happily assumes at the hall). “Engineers are interested in the organ because it is so complex,” and there is nothing simple to the maintenance of a 6027-pipe concert organ, particularly now as Sampson and the trustees raise funds to repair damages the hall and organ suffered during the May floods in 2006. “It was by the far biggest natural disaster that we’ve had to cope with,” says Sampson. The adjacent Spicket River overflowed its banks causing severe damage to the basement, interior walls, organ blower, and electrical systems. The nonprofit needed to raise $30,000 to restore the hall to the state in which Searles left it.
To boost audience numbers, the MMMH outreaches to children and schools, hosting the Methuen Young People’s Theater, which performs Gilbert and Sullivan operettas each year. From May to December patrons enjoy a 15-week Wednesday night concert series in addition to silent film showings and special holiday events. Also, trustees see that new pipes and stops are added occasionally to keep the organ sounding its best. There is always something happening at the MMMH, and Ed Sampson has it on good authority there always will be. He reflects on the hall’s history: “Without the Boston Symphony Orchestra being formed, without the organ being expelled from the hall, Searles wouldn’t have been able to buy it at auction for $1,500, and he wouldn’t have built this hall.” Francis Edward Searles combined his love for his hometown with his passion for the arts, and the people of Methuen are fortunate to be his beneficiaries. One hundred fifty years in the making, the first American pipe organ plays on in the Merrimack Valley.
To learn more about the organ, the hall, and its events schedule for the remainder of the year, visit Mmmh.org, or call (978) 685-0693.