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Nearly 200-year-old church organ being restored by Stonington craftsman

By Kristina Dorsey

Publication: The Day

Published January 05. 2014 4:00AM
Photos by Sean D. Elliot/The Day
Scot Huntington solders a wind conductor from the 1823 Thomas Hall pipe organ Friday in his shop in the former Stonington Velvet Mill. Huntington, who has been restoring organs for nearly 40 years, has spent a year working on the Hall organ from the Trinity Episcopal Church in Litchfield. Still in use, it is the oldest American-built organ in the state.
1823 church instrument restored in Stonington

Scot Huntington's latest organ restoration project just might be one of his most complex. He compares it to figuring out a jigsaw puzzle - without having a picture of the completed image on the box cover to follow.

Huntington has spent the last year restoring an 1823 organ - the oldest one in regular use in the state - for the Trinity Episcopal Church in the Milton section of Litchfield.

The instrument was modernized in 1858 and badly restored in 1970, which eliminated some historical material. Huntington has been toiling inside his Velvet Mill workspace in Stonington to bring the organ back to its 1823 condition.

That's not as easy as it sounds, in part because he had to determine which parts were the original construction and what was added, removed or changed in 1858 or 1970.

Some of that difficulty is simply the product of the passage of years.

"By the time something's 100 years old, everything looks the same - pieces have all darkened to the same color," says Huntington, who has been working as an organ restorer in Stonington borough since 1982 and has established his own company, S.L. Hunt ing ton & Co.

But this case was even more challenging than that.

The organ happens to be the only Thomas Hall instrument left, even though the builder was quite prolific from 1810 to about 1825.

And, Huntington says, "The number of organs in the United States that are this old you can count on one hand, so there's nothing to go look at and copy."

Consequently, it has required a lot of detective work. Huntington even traveled to Vermont to look at an 1833 organ built by Hall's apprentice in an effort to figure out some of the missing parts on the Trinity Episcopal Church's instrument.

Beyond that, Huntington says, "There's screw holes, and you try to figure out what they were for or what was put there. Or you know something needs to be made and you don't know where it goes, so you try to figure out where they put it or how they made a particular part. It's kind of like solving a mystery."

Huntington had expected the project to take six months, but it ended up taking twice that long.

"We took away the pedals. We restored the case to its original dimensions. We restored missing pieces of mechanical parts. Some of its playing mechanism was gone, and we recreated those," Huntington says.

In addition, everything is getting "spiffed up," he says. The case is being repaired and waxed, and the dents and broken parts - manifestations of the toll that time takes - are being fixed.

This is the oldest American-built organ in the state. The only older ones were built in Europe and are housed in a museum at Yale University. It's also the oldest organ Huntington has ever restored.

'Turning back the clock'

As for Huntington's background, he says, "When I was a boy, I thought I wanted to be an architect. I was fascinated with taking things apart and sometimes successfully putting them together - like the toaster - and sometimes not."

He was interested in classical music and, hearing the organ played at church, became intrigued. He learned how to play and earned a degree in organ performance from the State Uni ver sity of New York. After college, he apprenticed as an organ builder with A. David Moore of North Pomfret, Vt., and served his jour ney man's pe riod with the Bozeman-Gib son Co. of Deer field, N.H.

Restoring an organ usually takes about a year, although some smaller projects may be more like three to six months. The longest, which took two years, involved an antique organ that an Indiana church bought from a Cape Cod church that had closed. As with Huntington's current work, that one involved "turning back the clock" and dealing with a lot of changes that had happened over time.

His other projects over the years included an 1870 organ that was "as big as a small house," he says. It was in New Haven and was moved from one Catholic church near Wooster Square to another church not far away, in the Fairhaven section.

Transporting something as mammoth as an organ involves taking it apart into a lot of little pieces.

"You move it in a great big truck, and then you put the pieces all back together again," Huntington says. "When you do it enough times, you recognize what a piece is and where you think it's going to go. But when you take something apart, you do a lot of labeling and numbering of things, just so you make sure that you get them all back together. You take a lot of pictures just in case something isn't clear."

The people from the Litchfield church will be coming to Stonington today to see the finished product and to hear organist Joseph Ripka play the restored instrument for them.

"They'll look around and see what's been done," Huntington says. "Then they'll go home, and I'll start packing it up again."

k.dorsey@theday.com

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