1920s pipe organ makes Charles Village home's decor of special note


January 06, 1991|By Lynn Williams

Welcome to Bellcrank Manor. Prepare to step into the past.

The doorbell is an ornate brass pull-knob. The hallway is dimly lighted, and there are cracks in the plaster of the high ceiling; fringed red velvet drapes the entrance to a parlor whose only resident is a stuffed owl, which stares down glassily from the top of a bookcase. There's a sound-track, too: the music of a pipe organ, reverberating down the curving staircase.

All of this is true. But it's also misleading. The three-story Victorian in south Charles Village is owned not by a Vincent Price wannabe, but by D. Brian Jensen, an affable 39-year-old who works in the exhibits department of the Smithsonian's American History Museum. And the music he's playing at his stately organ is not something eerie by Bach, but a tune with the cheery, ricky-ticky rhythms of the Prohibition era.

The house, while only partially renovated, is a Belle Epoque period piece. Yes, in some areas you will find cracked plaster and darkened floors and other telltale signs of the handyman's special, but the finished rooms are a dramatic evocation of the era when Victoria was on the throne, medieval design was the rage and nothing succeeded like excess.

The parlor is splendid, but if you really want to be impressed, go up to the second floor. There, in a back room, is Mr. Jensen's piece de resistance: the high Gothic library which houses his Wurlitzer theater organ. Although it dates from the 1920s and once accompanied silent movies, the handsome instrument, heavy with gilded scrollwork, looks perfectly at home in a room replete with gingerbread and extravagant stenciled trim.

Brian Jensen might be said to have pipe organs in his blood; the eldest son of a musical family, he remembers childhood visits from his great-aunt Winnie Ward Ray, who was a professional theater organist during the silent-film era, as well as a skilled pianist who gave the young Mr. Jensen and his brothers their first taste of ragtime.

But it was later, during his years as a fine arts student at Virginia Commonwealth University in Richmond, Va., that he really fell in love with the instrument that was known, a couple of generations ago, as the mighty Wurlitzer.

"I remember talking a friend into going to see a silent movie with organ accompaniment at the Byrd Theatre," he remembers. "The organist was going to be the very same organist who had introduced the film in 1927. I had never been in a real movie palace, and I was blown away. And then the organ started up and rose out of the pit. I had never heard a sound like that before. It was a very lush romantic sound, and as I consider myself a hopeless romantic, it fit right in with my scheme of things."

The organist not only played music to accompany "Wings," a World War I aviation epic, but contributed the airplane sound effects, too. "Who needs talking?" thought Mr. Jensen. And he vowed that he would have a theater organ of his own some day.

In the summers during his college years he worked at the Smithsonian, where he helped restore antique machinery and scientific instruments for the Centennial exhibit. The job fit right in with his talents and interests: He had restored his own vintage automobile, and had made a working band organ and a flying machine for his sculpture classes. At the Smithsonian he also met Durward Center, who was working on a music machines exhibit, and became part of a circle of organ enthusiasts who not only loved the music but knew how to build the instruments.

One of the gang's favorite hang-outs was a skating rink in Alexandria, which had a huge pipe organ and a jovial organist who used to greet his fans with their own signature tunes.

"I was there every Wednesday and Saturday night," Mr. Jensen says. "I couldn't skate, but I sat there enraptured by the sound of this enormous beast."

After college, he expanded his knowledge of the instrument's workings through a job with the Richmond office of Lewis and Hitchcock, an organ company. He worked there for nine months, until a permanent Smithsonian job came through.

Mr. Jensen's fondness for the Victorian style predates even his fondness for organs. Throughout high school and college he collected Victorian furniture, hoping he would one day have a proper showcase for it. After graduating in 1973, he lived for a while with Mr. Center in an Alexandria, Va., apartment, which they fitted out with gaslights and a marble fireplace that had come from a Baltimore row house.

Learning from a friend that there were good bargains available in Baltimore real estate, the two men came north to take a look, and found what they were looking for. Mr. Center purchased a 15-room corner house with an attached workshop that would provide both living quarters and space for his music machine restoration business. And for $8,000 Mr. Jensen bought a town house across the street.

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