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Keys, Hammers, & Pipes

Bringing an organized piano back to life

June 22, 2014

A Conservation Pipeline

By John Watson

Restorative conservation of the Tucker instrument will begin with one of our more daunting challenges: to straighten the severely damaged metal pipes. While the wood pipes survived in relatively good condition, the metal ones were hardly recognizable as organ pipes. All were crushed and folded so even the longest pipe could fit in a 24-inch long cardboard box.

The conservation-minded approach to restoration is all about respecting historical evidence. At first glance, these pipes appear to have been vandalized.

But taking a closer look, the damage may not have been intentional at all. Instead, it may be a consequence of some sort of catastrophic event. The dents have characteristics that suggest they were neither clubbed with anything nor was their soft metal bent by hand.

An important clue is the severe distortion in many of the cone-shaped pipe feet where a rack-board holds the pipes upright in the organ. That indicates the pipes were pulled very hastily out of the organ by someone who frantically rocked them side to side to loosen them, causing the foot damage. Other dents and irregular distortions are consistent with the pipes being thrown some distance into a pile, each one landing on the others to dent, crush and collapse.

In understanding the pipe damage, it is worth noting something about the Rives family of Castle Hill, where the instrument spent most of its history since around 1810. Family papers indicate that the instrument was cherished as a family heirloom even long after it stopped working as a musical instrument.

The pipe damage could be explained if a fire had once threatened to consume the instrument. One of the many Castle Hill servants might have removed the pipes as a first, frantic step in trying to save the organ, tossing the pipes through a window and away from the house. There are reasons to believe such an incident might have occurred around the 1820s. It would explain why the pipes were never thrown away even after the damage occurred. They were saved in hopes that somehow, someday, they would be saved. It gave me a thrill when I realized our work fulfills an almost unrealistic hope that endured for nearly two centuries.

Whatever the reason for that urgent and hasty removal of the pipes from the organ, they were stored somewhere at Castle Hill. During the following decades, mice got to the pipes and found their sweet-tasting corrosion irresistible. The photos below show some of the holes that were chewed in the pipes and the telltale teeth marks left by the rodents.

Over the next two posts, we will straighten the pipes.

Conservation of the Tucker organized piano is made possible by a gift in memory of N. Beverely Tucker, Jr.

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