METHUEN -- The stately brick building on the banks of the Spicket River south of town looks like a church, and not even the nondescript Methuen Memorial Music Hall sign hints at the treasure that is inside.
What draws devotees to the Merrimack Valley every summer is the pipe organ, an E.F. Walcker and Co. model made in Germany for the Boston Music Hall, where it was installed in 1863 as the nation's first concert organ. In 1884, it was put into storage until Methuenite Edward F. Searles bought it at auction in 1897 and commissioned Henry Vaughan , the famous church architect , to design a building to house it.
Today the nonprofit Methuen Memorial Music Hall, Inc., founded in 1946, owns the 97-year-old property and presents recitals by organists from around the world every Wednesday from late May through August as well as other special programs.
The hall's interior is impressive: marble floors, a 65-foot Roman barrel vault ceiling , gilded accents, Corinthian pilasters, and oak panels. The organ's silvery display pipes soar above an elaborately carved black walnut case. There is a bust of Bach and two 12-foot-tall Atlases stand guard at the organ's base; a pair of cherubs look down from on high. But it's the organ's 6,027 pipes, 84 stops, five divisions, and 115 ranks that can raise the roof.
Edward J. Sampson Jr., president of the hall's board of trustees and author of ``The Great Organ," said Searles and his friends played the organ for pleasure, never for the public. ``I often tell people Mr. Searles had the equivalent of a 5.1 Dolby Digital surround sound system," Sampson said.
``It's a wonderful instrument to play," organist Gretchen E. Longwell said from her Salem, Ore., home. ``Each of the four keyboards has its own division, so it's like playing several small organs. It has lots of versatility." She demonstrated that attribute this month, playing modern French and contemporary US composers, among them Jean Langlais, James Woodman, Samuel Adler, and Adolphus Hailstork.
``I like Methuen because it's a well-attended recital series so I present work from the repertoire that's not normally performed," Longwell said. ``Woodman is from Boston and I love to play his choral music."
Rehearsal time is a necessity, said Wilma Jensen, a June recitalist, from her home in Nashville. ``Organists need to spend major time getting the best sound from an instrument. I like the challenge of trying to conquer the instrument." Jensen's program featured French Romantic composers to suit the organ's French concert pitch. Among the works was Charles-Marie Widor's "Symphony No. 6 in G minor, Op. 42, No. 2," a piece she played in the fall at Notre Dame in Paris.
After Searles's death in 1920, the complex stayed in private hands until local organ builder Ernest M. Skinner bought it in 1931 and performed the first public concerts. Financial problems and World War II silenced the organ again until eight local citizens formed the nonprofit, raising money through recitals, CD sales, and hall rentals.
Flooding in May left 5 feet of water in the basement and destroyed electrical and fire alarm systems, and the organ blower and motor, among other items. Sampson said the music hall needs to raise $30,000 in donations to cover the damage.
A ponderous note, but its fans believe the organ can play it.
Contact Jan Shepherd, a freelance writer in Boston, at firstname.lastname@example.org.