Ebube Onwusika ’21
The Irvine Memorial Chapel is perhaps Mercersburg Academy’s most beloved building. Built in 1926, the Chapel has held a variety of religious ceremonies, school traditions, and music performances. A staple to many of these is the school’s organ, played by organist and carillonneur Jim Brinson.
In recent years, south-central Pennsylvania experienced a series of heavy rains, especially in the Mercersburg area. One Sunday morning in preparation for a Chapel service, when turning on the school’s organ, Brinson heard immediately that something was wrong. Walking into the west pipe chamber of the Chapel, he found himself standing in a pool of water and saw that there was water damage to the pipes. There was a serious leak in the roof, and the water had caused extensive damage to the organ.
The school quickly filed a damage report. Once the project was approved by the school’s insurance company, renovations began during the winter term, sometime in February. The renovations are being completed by a local company called Lewis and Hitchcock, which normally maintains the school’s organ and knows the instrument well.
A construction team was scheduled to remove the entire organ and take it back to the Lewis and Hitchcock shop to completely rebuild it. However, COVID brought financial restraints, and the project could no longer be carried out as planned. Instead, the renovations have taken place on campus, and gratefully the costs are being handled by the school insurance.
The reconstruction process is long and complex. All damaged components have to be taken out, including the wind-chests where the pipes sit. These are made entirely of wood and ended up with serious water damage. The company had to erect major scaffolding, in order to remove the pipes, as some can weigh up to 550 pounds. The smaller pipes are able to be taken out by hand. The pipes are indeed taken back to shop and repaired, while school painters work on the walls where the organ pipes and chests normally sit. Last week, all the pipes were finally completed, but an entire week was dedicated to putting them back. The pipes will need tuning before they can officially be played.
While the Chapel organ renovations came as a surprise to some, a plan to work on the organ was already in the works. Before the pandemic, the plan was a complete rebuild of the organ. The school has a significant budget set aside to maintain the instrument every year. It was first installed in 1926, almost 100 years ago, so it is safe to say a renovation was in order.
Jim Brinson says, “The organ in our chapel is a historical, musical instrument. It is known around the country. It is an instrument worth preserving historically and culturally. It’s just a wonderful instrument. I am happy that the school appreciates the cultural value and historical value of the instrument.” He also added, “At some point, it will be wise to do a rebuild with all new components. I am thankful we’ve been able to do what we’ve done. I am happy that the school values the instrument to take care of it.”
Daily life in the chapel hasn’t changed too drastically with the ongoing construction. There has been almost no disruption because a lot of the work took place when the school community was virtual. Even now, the organ company has been thoughtful of daily campus life. They have graciously left enough of the Chapel available for music classes and Chapel services to continue as usual with little to no disruption.
By the end of this week, the work should finally be complete. Brinson explains that he is always happy to teach people to play the organ, and it is certainly a possibility once this soon-to-be historical project comes to completion.