$900,000 renovation of Peabody's hall awaits its centerpiece $600,000 organ 10-ton instrument's arrival expected early next year

October 06, 1997|By Jamie Stiehm | Jamie Stiehm,SUN STAFF

At the Peabody Conservatory perched on Mount Vernon, a grand new organ recital hall is done -- except for the organ.

Last week, the final coat of olive-green paint went on the walls of the 19th-century North Hall, originally designed as a sculpture gallery. With that finishing touch, it was transformed into an organ concert hall, complete with acoustics for the 21st century.

But one without an organ -- a situation that will soon be remedied.

First came the four-month renovation of the rectangular room, nearly 100 feet by 36 feet, and 30 feet high. Seven scaffolds were required for the project, which employed more than 40 workers from several trades.

Now Peabody is ready for the second stage: delivery of a custom-made, 10-ton pipe organ from Cleveland due early next year, to the tune of $668,000. The Holtkamp organ was a gift from a couple in upstate New York. The first concerts in the hall will take place in the spring.

"We were a major [music] conservatory with no concert organ," said Robert Sirota, 47, who for two years has directed the Peabody Institute, a part of the Johns Hopkins University. "We're back in every way."

Said Sirota of the $900,000 renovation: "To bring the building back to something closer to its original design was one of my goals. Uplifting space improves the level of performance."

Silent and empty, North Hall's wooden floors gleam, and the second-story windows frame the Mount Vernon Place United Methodist Church spires and other elegant views of the neighborhood.

The wall color was selected to match the 1870s original and the two Flemish medieval tapestries that will be displayed after the organ is assembled.

"It really surpasses anything that's been done here," said Peabody archivist Elizabeth Schaaf.

The project architect, Hugh McCormick of Ziger/Snead Inc. in Baltimore, said the painstaking design concealed modern technology within decorative flourishes.

For example, water sprinklers are hidden inside ceiling rosettes.

"It was like hide and seek with technical changes," said Schaaf.

Just as important as appearance are the acoustics. To make the hall as resonant as possible for the ceiling-high organ pipes, McCormick said, fabric covers skylight openings to the roof. This will allow the sound to reverberate better. (The fabric also hides heating and air-conditioning ducts.)

New storm windows were put in to block sounds from the street, all for the greater glory of the organ's sound. Gone are the days when the drapes were pulled to change the acoustics.

"The workmen are so excited about what's going on," said Donald Sutherland, a faculty member and organist. As Sutherland reviewed the plans for the organ's custom fit, "one worker said he felt it was a once-in-a-lifetime opportunity, since there will not be another organ like it in the world," Sutherland said.

Baltimore sculptor Kenneth Kuhn added the most important decorative improvement: extending a plaster frieze -- based on the Parthenon's in Athens -- around the room.

Built about 120 years ago, "the building had to be able to change," said Schaaf. The archivist noted that the trustees then believed it should be "capable of harmonious adjustment."

An opera student was dazzled last week when she opened the doors to the new North Hall.

Remembering the room as shabby and "run down" last year, Miriam Dubrow, 25, of Philadelphia proclaimed it a "fantastic space."

"Everyone's going to want to have their recitals in this hall."

Pub Date: 10/06/97

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