After years of sitting silent, the centerpiece organ in Lang Concert Hall is ready to show off its pipes once again, thanks to a yearlong restoration project funded by a 2019 gift and donor challenge by the Lang family.
Built in the mid-1970s by the Holtkamp Organ Co., the instrument had fallen into disrepair and been unplayable for at least 10 years. Its restoration was part of a full renovation of the 48-year-old Lang Music Building, which was named for the late College benefactor Eugene Lang ’38, H’81.
“The organ has such a presence,” says ADA Program Coordinator Susan Smythe, who has served as senior project manager for the building’s renovation. “So few of us have actually heard the organ, but to really be in the room when it’s playing, it’s quite a visceral experience.”
Although the organ was just a fraction of the renovation project’s total budget, the work involved in restoring the instrument was substantial, Smythe says. In addition to replacing the controls and keyboards, organ restorer Patrick J. Murphy & Associates cleaned or repaired each of the 2,345 pipes and releathered two of the organ’s windchests. The instrument’s inner workings were also converted from mechanical to electrical action, making the organ easier to maintain, and its sharp Neo-Baroque sound was toned down slightly to better suit the organ for a more diverse repertoire.
The difference between the organ of past and present is profound, says Senior Music Lecturer Andrew Hauze ’04, who consulted closely with the organ restorer and made recommendations throughout the repair proposal process. An organist since age 14, Hauze recalls performing a laborious recital his senior year at Swarthmore, with the organ becoming “heavier and heavier” to play as the concert drew on.
Hauze says he’s eager for students to hear, practice on, and develop a relationship with the restored instrument, since no two pipe organs are ever the same.
“So much of the access to organs is tied to churches, and many students never even encounter them,” he says. “I’m excited to be able to spread interest and awareness of what this instrument can do and how powerful it can be, because it’s an extraordinary sound.”
The music building’s renovations and upgrades were largely funded by a gift from the Eugene M. Lang Fund for the Future. In announcing the gift to the Board of Managers in 2019, Lang’s daughter Jane ’67 and granddaughter Lucy ’03 — both Managers themselves — designated $7 million for the renovation, pledging an additional $1 million if the College could raise $1 million in donations for the project. The challenge inspired multiple Board members to make $100,000 gifts of their own, propelling the project toward the million-dollar match and the full $9 million earmark.
“Jane and I are deeply grateful to my grandfather, Gene Lang, for the legacy of giving,” Lucy Lang said at the time. “It is our family’s privilege to channel his philanthropy and spirit through this gift of renewal for the Lang Music Building, which has brought joy to so many members of the Swarthmore community and beyond.”
The restoration of the organ “expands in one small way the diversity of the Swarthmore experience,” says Manager David Singleton ’68, a longtime fan of classical organ music who played a large role in ensuring the repair was included in the renovation project. “Even for people like me who aren’t music majors or highly knowledgeable about music, it provides a different experience. And, hopefully, it’ll get used both for performance and for teaching purposes.”
The organ repair, which began in January 2020 with final tunings taking place just last month, could not have happened without first stabilizing the temperature and humidity in the concert hall, Smythe says. An overhaul of the building’s heating and cooling system was a major part of the overall renovation project.
“The funny thing is, with this renovation, you’ll largely walk in and go, ‘Well, did they do anything?’” Smythe says. “For most of the building, you will not see major differences because it’s all behind the walls and above the ceilings.”
The project also included a new accessibility ramp in the building’s lobby, full updates of the restrooms, and a new egress pathway outside the concert hall. Additionally, the underused Presser Room was completely revamped to accommodate large student groups like the Chinese Music Ensemble and Gamelan Semara Santi. Overall, the refurbishments will improve the practice and performance experience of all musicians who use the concert hall, including the Chester Children’s Chorus.
With building renovations nearly finished, Hauze is excited for the Music Department to plan programming that celebrates the organ’s triumphant return, especially once the Swarthmore community is able to make its own return to campus.
“We were so thrilled that the organ was included in this project and so grateful that the Lang family really went for it,” he says. “To me, it is the crowning glory of this whole renovation.”