Those familiar with the Firestone Baars Chapel know Finnish architect Eero Saarinen, who designed the Gateway Arch in St. Louis, also planned the historic sanctuary on the Stephens College campus.
What they might not know is inside the building waits a hidden gem: an organ.
Built by the preeminent Aeolian-Skinner Organ Company of Boston, and installed in 1956, the organ is unique, its geometric shape and clean lines clearly influenced by the chapel’s architect. Even the organ’s console has it own quirky characteristics.
But after 60 years in place, the Aeolian–Skinner needs some attention.
On Wednesday, March 8, 2017, Stephens will host “Make a Joyful Noise,” a concert at the chapel to benefit the organ restoration project. The concert begins at 7:30 p.m. and costs $20 per person. (Buy tickets.) Performers include Haig Mardirosian, organist; Trent Rash, tenor, and Darrell Jordan, baritone; the Prairie Strings Quartet and the Stephens College Concert Choir. A reception will immediately follow the concert.
“The organ is part of the legacy of Stephens,” said Dr. Gail Humphries Mardirosian, dean of the School of Performing Arts. “We felt the time was right to begin work on restoring this valuable instrument.”
Last year, the School of Performing Arts received a $10,000 gift to begin the process, first assessing the condition of the organ and then identifying small fixes that could be made in time to make the organ more playable by the benefit concert in March.
John Panning, a consultant with Dobson Pipe Organ Builders in Lake City, Iowa, traveled to Columbia to examine the instrument and found a number of issues. Among the most serious was the poor condition of the leather bellows inside the organ. His report also indicates that, among other work, the pipes need tuning, regulating and cleaning. Some quasi-cosmetic repairs include smoothing chipped keys and broken stop tabs.
The estimated cost of restoring the organ to its original splendor: $190,000.
But Haig Mardirosian, who will be playing the organ during the benefit concert, said the cost of the project is “a pretty good investment” in an instrument that cost the College about $33,000 in the mid- to late-1950s and is estimated to be worth about $1.5 million when its restored.
“The organ is a very valuable resource,” he said.
Mardirosian, who is married to Stephens’ dean of the School of Performing Arts, has been playing the organ since he was a boy growing up in New York. Today, he is dean of the College of Arts and Letters and professor of music at The University of Tampa. He has earned international standing as a composer, conductor, concert organist and recording artist.
Mardirosian was 12 when his mother took him to the Riverside Church in New York City to hear the famous Virgil Fox play the organ. Riveted by the performance, the boy vowed to play the powerful instrument.
Mardirosian believes a restored organ at Stephens could have the same power to inspire a new generation of players and fans.
“I hope everyone is as excited about this project as I am,” he said. “Just wait until you hear the organ after it’s restored. You won’t believe your ears.”
7:30 p.m., Wednesday, March 8, 2017
Firestone Baars Chapel, 1306 E. Walnut St.
Stephens College campus
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