A 1,006-pipe mechanical action tracker organ stretches two stories tall on the west wall of the art gallery. The organ was installed in the house at the recommendation of the interior designers.
Renowned Boston organ-maker George Hutchings created the pipe organ when the Hill family first moved into their new Summit Avenue mansion in 1891. The instrument is a mechanical action tracker organ with 17 ranks and 1,006 pipes — a particularly distinguished example of a residential pipe organ of America’s Gilded Age.
The organ was used for family gatherings, concerts and parties. Four of the Hill daughters were married in the house, and Hill’s funeral took place there in 1916. Early concerts hosted by St. Paul’s Schubert Club made use of the pipe organ.
While the organ remains beautiful to behold, many of the instrument’s original wood and leather components have deteriorated over its nearly 130-year existence, causing air leakage and sound quality issues. In order to combat further deterioration, the organ has been largely unplayed in recent years.
In 2018 it is undergoing much-needed rehabilitation work, thanks to the generosity of private donors, Martin V. Chorzempa and Dr. George and Joan Fischer. This comprehensive project costs an estimated $141,000 and focuses on preserving this historic instrument for the future and returning it to reliable playability.
Dobson Pipe Organ Builders of Lake City, Iowa, will lead the work, including completely disassembling the organ, shipping parts — including 12-foot pipes — from St. Paul to Lake City, and reassembling it on site at the Hill House. Dobson’s work will involve tasks like repairing the pipework and releathering the organ reservoir and windchests. The company will also design and construct new, historically accurate parts to replace organ components that have deteriorated.
The project is estimated to be completed in July, but timelines may shift once work is underway and Dobson staff is able to fully assess the instrument. The art gallery is closed to the public during the organ’s removal and reinstallation. Hill House staff will share updates on social media and with in-person visitors.
“Because this repair project involves completely taking apart the organ, it will help us learn new details about this incredible instrument and the craftspeople who made it. We’re excited to share that new knowledge with visitors,” said Christine Herbaly, site manager of the James J. Hill House and Alexander Ramsey House. “We’re grateful that the organ will no longer be silent and will be able to once again enhance the visitor experience at the Hill House for generations to come.”