There are times when one regular outing can change into something different, a gem that quickens your pulse and provides the idea for another blog post.
This is what happened recently when I set off for a meeting in a venue that was new, one I hadn’t heard of despite its proximity, but which had me reaching for my iPhone as I had no camera with me. So the photos, taken in an interior that was dim for photography, may be rather grainy because I haven’t yet experimented with using my camera phone, but the opportunity was too good to let pass for some unusual (and sometimes abstract-looking) images.
The venue was the New Palace Theatre Organ Heritage Centre in Greenlaw, a village in the Scottish Borders.
An odd place, perhaps, for such a tribute to the days of silent film and the golden days of cinema, but one worth a visit to see the display of old cinematic equipment including commercial as well as domestic projectors, old cameras, a pianola, a wind-up horn gramophone with photographs and prints of the golden age of film adorning the walls.
The building in Greenlaw was originally acquired in 1991 to house a small theatre pipe organ, based on the remains of the Hilsdon organ from the Palace Picture House in Princes Street, Edinburgh. The picture house opened in December, 1913 and was later acquired by the family who had built the Playhouse in Leith Walk. The Hilsdon organ was installed in the Palace in 1929 when sound equipment was fitted, with the Palace then run in tandem with the much larger Playhouse.
The organ remained there until 1955 when it was removed to Hilsdon’s organ works in Glasgow where it languished for twenty years. Having been pilfered over the years for spares, the remaining organ was given to Gordon Lucas along with pipes from some other organs. The organ works of Henry Hilsdon Ltd in Govan, Glasgow built a handful of both orchestral and unit organs for Scottish cinemas. Hilsdon was regarded by many as the ‘Rolls Royce’ of Scottish pipe organ builders.
Gordon Lucas along with Larry McGuire purchased the Greenlaw property as a place to reassemble the organ. Part of the property had originally been a single storey cottage of two rooms with a thatched roof, extended around 1760 to form two cottages with its first non-domestic use by a wooden spoon-maker, then by a saddler and harness maker. An extension became a ‘side school’ for the Free Church of Scotland and around 1835 another extension was erected as the home for a retired Free Church minister. Later the property was used as one of the village’s three bakeries. Several transformations and changes of use later the building became an agricultural machine repair workshop, then a builder’s workshop before being bought as a granny flat. So a patchwork history for a building destined to become a ‘Palace’.
Before the organ could be moved into its new home the property required extensive renovations to accommodate the organ pipes and to make the building suitable for purpose. By the end of 1993 the studio accommodating the organ was compete, and a concert was given for members of STOPS – the Scottish Theatre Organ Preservation Society. STOPS members were so impressed by the renovations they asked if they could use the premises as the Society’s new home, and so the idea of the ‘New Palace Centre’ was born with a formal public opening concert in October 1994.
All was moving along nicely when the following year their organ world was turned upside down. The huge organ in the Playhouse, Edinburgh, the largest theatre organ in Scotland, was donated to them, on the stipulation it should be amalgamated with its little sister in Greenlaw. At that time neither organ was complete, a task Gordon and Larry had to address.
Adjustments were not only made to the premises but also to the organ, with a new console and wiring, a new five manual console with Stops, Couplers, Controls and Accessories with almost 1200 registers. The console, it is claimed, is surprisingly compact and easy to play. I leave that to others to judge.
Like many works of art, temperature and humidity of the place of installation are important, so the building is continuously monitored electronically, and alerts generated if temperature or humidity vary from predefined thresholds. When the organ is required to be played, the three pipe chambers and auditorium must be at the same temperatures they were at when the organ was tuned to ensure the different divisions are in tune with each other. Quite an undertaking I would think, especially in our Scottish climate when we can experience the weather of four seasons in one afternoon.
Since then work has continued at the centre to improve facilities. Gordon Lucas died in 2002 but Larry continued to plough time and money into its development so that today the centre runs a programme of silent films in the former studio which has now become a comfortable auditorium redolent of music hall days, though equipped to a professional standard with audio, video and stage lighting systems suited to a variety of uses. And centre stage when the curtains open is the Unique Hilsdon Unit Orchestral Pipe Organ.
After our meeting Larry flexed his fingers and played a piece, the rich sound enveloping us like a velvet cloak.
The information for this post is taken from the Centre’s two websites – www.nptohc.co.uk and http://www.stops.org. Any mistakes are mine, so please read the information on the websites and visit the centre if you can.