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Greenville & Hockessin Life

In fine tune

Nov 26, 2017 09:52AM ● By J. Chambless

Irenee duPont, Jr., has enjoyed the family pipe organ since he was a child.

Lisa Fieldman
Staff Writer

In the early 1900s, it was fashionable to have a residential pipe organ installed in your home. They were showcased in the houses of affluent residents, and several homes in Wilmington had pipe organs, though the majority have not survived through the years.

Of those pipe organs, one remains operational and is at Granogue, the home of Barbara and Irenee duPont, Jr.

“The organ was installed at the time the home was built,” Mr. duPont said. “There were about 760 of these residential organs made by the Aeolian Pipe Organ Company. It was an off-the-shelf item.”

Like many residential pipe organs, the Granogue organ is self-playing, but can also be played manually.

“Learning to play a pipe organ is a lifelong dedication; it’s much more complicated than the piano,” duPont said. No one in the family played the instrument, so they relied on paper scrolls for automatic play. Originally, scrolls came with instructions detailing which stops to pull on and off, though later scrolls were fully automatic. Today, the pipe organ can be controlled through a computer. You simply type in a song’s code, and sit back and enjoy the music.

Irenee duPont, Sr., built Granogue after World War 1, and in 1923, the family relocated from Rising Sun Lane.

“We were moving into the country from Wilmington,” duPont said. “My mother and my eight sisters liked the outdoors as well as music, and we were still close to the bright lights of the city, which they also enjoyed.” DuPont recalled that the pipe organ was playing as the family walked into their home for the first time.

Incorporating a pipe organ into the building plans of a grand house was not uncommon in that era. “It was before electronic recordings of orchestras, so to get good quality music, you had to go all the way,” duPont said. “There were quite a few around Wilmington, and of course New York City was full of them.”

The 23-rank pipe organ console sits in the spacious drawing room, under a portrait of Barbara duPont’s mother. “She could play, so we put the portrait where she could feel at home,” duPont said with a smile. He opened a cabinet to display the computer control of the pipe organ. Shortly after he switched on the blower and entered the code for “The Lost Chord,” music swelled up through the organ well and resonated throughout the drawing room.

As the organ played, duPont pointed out the stunning view from the arch porch, a sweeping vista of the Brandywine Valley.

“You can see all the way to Downingtown,” he said as he pointed to the far-off tree line. “It’s that little V-shaped valley on the very distant horizon.”

The view was pristine, as if the surrounding countryside had remained unchanged for generations. Looking out to the land on the northeast side of the property, he said, “Fifty to 60 years ago, that was all mom-and-pop farms. Now it’s wood lots.”

DuPont selected another tune, “The Bells of St. Mary's,” a song that showcases the pipe organ’s chimes. He then offered a tour of the pipe organ components on the lower level. The “works” consist of 1,200 pipes and windchest, a set of chimes, and a glockenspiel, giving the organ a full orchestral sound.

A pipe organ is a sensitive instrument, and temperature and humidity need to be monitored to keep the organ in prime condition.

“There is no air conditioning in the house except for the organ chamber,” duPont said. “The air conditioning was paid for over the first year in the savings on organ maintenance.”

Standing in the heart of the pipe organ as it played, and watching the metal hammers hitting the chimes and glockenspiel, seeing the pipes engage, was to be fully immersed in the music.

As the song ended, duPont walked into the adjacent room where the turbine engine is located. “In the old days, someone had to work the big bellows,” he explained, “so when the electric motor came along, they made an electric fan that would create pressure to blow the pipes.”

The turbine was purchased second-hand from a church up north. “This motor is special because it had been blessed by the Pope while in the church,” duPont said. “It was brought here, and the blessings have spread all throughout the house.”

Back in the drawing room, duPont continued to talk about the enjoyment music has brought to his family. Sharing space with the organ console is a grand piano. In the parlor sits a hammered dulcimer, and his Uncle Pierre’s George A. Prince reed organ, circa 1855.

In pipe organ circles, the Granogue organ is well known. It is not uncommon for like-minded enthusiasts to stop by to chat with duPont and play the instrument. “When the organist from Atlantic City gets tired of playing his giant pipe organ, he comes down to play our smaller organ,” he said with a chuckle. The Atlantic City organ is located in Boardwalk Hall and designated as the world’s largest pipe organ. Technicians working on the Longwood Gardens pipe organ also like to stop by to visit.

The pipe organ has seen two restorations over the years, in 1965 and 1998. In 1997, a digital playback system was added. DuPont credits his son-in-law, Terry Tobias, as the driving force behind the restorations. The digital system has simplified the operation of the organ and gives access to a larger range of music. There is still a collection of paper music rolls on hand, but most of the rolls were donated to an organization in Boston that restores pipe organs.

Granogue is a grand country estate, but first and foremost, it is a comfortable family home. The importance of family, past and present, is evident throughout the living space. Framed family pictures are in every room.

“Barbie never throws away a picture,” duPont said with a smile. Painted portraits grace the walls throughout the home. “The picture of EI duPont was hanging there when we moved in,” duPont said, pointing to the mantle, “and I think those candlesticks came over on the American Eagle with EI and his family.” Holding court in the sunny breakfast room are portraits of Irenee Sr., Pierre, and Lammot duPont. “The three gentlemen who made it all possible,” duPont said.

In the drawing room, a Maxfield Parrish mural hangs above the pipes on the wall of the organ alcove. The mural is a three-panel, luminous landscape, and is known simply as the duPont mural. The artist was a childhood friend of Pierre duPont.

“He lived on the same block as Lammot’s family and was Pierre’s contemporary,” duPont said. “On one of Parrish’s frequent trips through Wilmington, he came to the house and said to my father, ‘I can decorate that wall for you if you like.’ So he painted three panels, and there it is.”

The artist painted the panels in 1933 on gesso board, but by World War II, the mural was falling apart. “He would come down now and then to patch it up,” duPont said. “Eventually, Parrish said, ‘I’m going to paint you another one.’ Well, my father didn’t think he ever would.”

Parrish was 83 years old when he finished the second version, which is dated 1953.

One of nine children, duPont has outlived all his siblings. “Now Barbie and I are the only ones left of that generation,” he said. He and his wife enjoy spending time with family, which includes 13 grandchildren and ten great-grandchildren, who visit often and enjoy hearing the pipe organ play.

When Irenee duPont, Sr., decided to install a pipe organ in the family home, he could not have foreseen how much pleasure it would bring to his family. But, three generations later, it continues to bring joy – and will hopefully do so for many years to come.

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