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Aeolian Organ Company, Opus 1559

Articles: Sarasota History

Author: Ron McCarty, Keeper of Ca'd'Zan at The Ringling
Credit: Ron McCarty, Keeper of Ca'd'Zan at The Ringling

Sarasota History - Aeolian Organ Company, Opus 1559 photo

Early in the twentieth-century, many millionaires built massive homes displaying their wealth as monuments of their “success.” Music rooms, ballrooms and fine musical instruments were symbols of “culture and refinement.” During the Gilded Age, business magnates such as: Henry Clay Frick, William K. Vanderbilt, Andrew Carnegie, Samuel Kress, Pierre S. Du Pont and Louis Comfort Tiffany contracted with the Aeolian Organ Company to create and install fashionable instruments in each of their family estates and occasionally on their luxury yachts.

John and Mable Ringing followed their example and installed the elaborate Aeolian pipe organs in their one hundred acre estate “Gray Crag” in Alpine, New Jersey and Ca’d’Zan, their 36,000 square-foot Venetian-Gothic mansion in Sarasota, Florida.

The original order was submitted to the New York Aeolian Organ offices by John Ringling on July 19, 1924. It was later revised, upgrading the instrument from a two-manual organ to a three-manual organ that included a Duo-Art mechanism for playing perforated paper-rolls. The contract was finally signed by John Ringling on August 24, 1924 at a cost of $25,000.00; the cost did not include the necessary electrical wiring throughout the mansion and the carved oak gothic-style console casement. There were very specific requirements regarding the wiring, motor and generators to assure the organ functioned properly.
The Ringling’s architect, Dwight James Baum, was given the laborious task of designing all aspects of Ca’d’Zan, which included the interior spaces which would need to accommodate the organ’s pipe chambers and motors. (Baum had designed several other important residences in New York that had commissioned Aeolian for the same type of product.) The competed organ was delivered in January of 1925 to the house, still under construction. Installation was difficult given that The Ringling’s had not yet decided where to place the console and many changes had occurred during construction; chambers had to be altered to meet the new size specifications and installing the pipes was problematic with the house still under construction.

A three console organ has a manual compass of 61 notes each and pedal board is 32 notes. It is playable from the manuals and pedal with the Aeolian Duo-Art Solo music rolls. The Duo-Art mechanism automatically operates the stops, tempo, and expression. All stops of the Great, Swell, Choir and Echo have seventy-three pipes each. The Solo organ stops have sixty-one pipes. The Great and Choir has eight ranks of pipes, the Swell has nine ranks with the Solo having seven and echo having five ranks of pipes. The pedal has six ranks making a total of forty-seven ranks including a five-rank mixture. It also has a sixty-one note Harp and a twenty note Chime. The Echo and Solo are playable from each of the three manuals. There are also twenty-two couplers.

The organ is installed as the heart of the Ca’d’Zan, directly opposite the fireplace in the main great hall known as the “Court.” The organ served as the focal point during evening festivities.” Multiple chambers are located throughout the structure to accommodate the two-thousand two hundred eighty-nine organ pipes. The main pipe-chamber for the organ is located behind the console on the second-story mezzanine strategically placed behind a seventeenth-century tapestry purchased from the estate of Vincent Astor. An Echo Chamber is also installed on the same level in the northeast corner of the mezzanine, concealed behind another early Flemish tapestry. The organ speaks through the tapestry with orchestral sound. The enormous array of hand-made pipes range in size from ten feet in length to the size of a pencil and are constructed of lead, zinc, tin and wood. The main pipe-chamber encompasses areas of the second and third stories of the house.

Just over a thousand Aeolian organs were created for people in the United States over the thirty-eight years of business. The organs were primarily installed in private residences; however, many were commissioned for churches, theaters and Masonic Temples. The Wannamaker Department Store commissioned an enormous Aeolian Organ for the customer’s enjoyment as they shopped. Only twenty-eight organs were built for clients in the State of Florida.

John and Mable Ringling often used the organ as background music during their intimate dinner parties. Mable Ringling was famous for her large garden parties and musicales: guest artists came from New York and Tampa to play the organ. A radio station was located on the roof-top level of the “John Ringling Hotel” owned by the Ringling. The organ was hard-wired to the radio station in order to broadcast music for the community from Ca’d’Zan. John Ringling’s vision of Sarasota has become a cultural for Florida. John and Mable Ringling created a fine art museum, which they filled with world treasures, built an elaborate Italianate mansion, started a school of fine arts and opened the Winter Quarters of the Circus to entice tourists from all regions to visit Sarasota. He exposed the community to all aspects of art and music and enriched the lives of everyone living in Sarasota.

With a successful restoration of the Ringling’s Opus 1559 Aeolian Organ, the museum can once again allow share music with the community. Ca’d’Zan could become a venue for celebrating music with our museum visitors. Possibilities include: organ concerts and performances in the evenings (with seating placed in the Foyer and Great Hall), pre-recorded music during self- guided open house visits at the Thursday night “Art after Five” program, a thirty-second “the sound of the pipes” period during the docent lead tours, and potentially nationally recognized performers could be televised for PBS or other television productions.

Seasonal Music was an important component in how John and Mable Ringling entertained. Please help us bring music back to this extraordinary house called “Ca’d’Zan.” The Ringling development team is available to assist anyone interested in helping make this a reality.