Searching For Historic Carnegie Pipe Organs

Jul 16, 2019

Andrew Carnegie is remembered for his philanthropy.  The industrialist wound up giving away an estimated 90 percent of his fortune to causes like libraries and education. 

But less known was how he helped many churches and community centers obtain pipe organs. It exemplified his love of music and belief that musical expression uplifted the soul. 

The Carnegie Foundation called the organ matching gifts “benefactions”.  It started with a gift to one church and snowballed from there. More than 8-thousand were manufactured and distributed around the world – including 207 here in Illinois.

But that was a long time ago and tracking down those organs in the state, if they still exist, requires some detective work.  Paula Romanaux is a concert organist, teacher and early music scholar who is on the case. 

She’s found about half. But it’s not all positive news.

“I’ve unfortunately found some stories where the organs were just dismantled because the church had no longer been viable or they couldn’t raise money to keep it tuned. Things like that,” she said.  

“Occasionally, you might find they end up in someone’s basement. But sometimes they were given away.  Sometimes given to other churches to use.” 

“Not all of these instruments went into wealthy churches.  Wealthy churches could afford to change everything around and say I want to get an…electric organ and so they might have been taken out,” Romanaux said.

One of these organs near Romanaux’s heart is in Virginia, Illinois.  Manufactured by Boston-based Hook and Hastings, she learned to play it growing up and attending the Christian Church.

‘What’s so unique about it is the only thing that’s been done is they just put an electric blower on it,” she said.  Before that, her dad had a job to pump the organ when he was young. 

Anyone who suspects they know the whereabouts of a Carnegie organ can contact ishsfurry@att.net