EVANSVILLE— In a time long gone, crowds gathered in Evansville’s Soldiers and Sailors Memorial Coliseum to hear the city’s great organ play.
Soldiers home from the Great War took their sweethearts to shows. Choirs sang in harmony with the organ’s 4,000 pipes. Orchestras drew pitch and rhythm from their melody. Performers acted within their chorus.
But all that was a long time ago. It’s been five decades since the Tinker Memorial Organ roared to life. The old instrument no longer makes music. Decades of neglect have taken their toll.
“Gradually, the organ was used less and less and less, and nobody was taking responsibility for it,” said University of Evansville organist Dr. Douglas Reed. “The organ needed repair, and nobody was taking responsibility for it. A big organ like that takes a lot of attention.”
Today, most have forgotten — or never knew of — the organ. It’s a remnant of a time, a town and a community long gone.
“An organ symbolizes community,” said the Rev. Tammy Gieselman, University of Evansville chaplain, gazing at the once-thunderous pipes lining the walls of a backroom in the Coliseum.
“It can move a people, really,” she said, without taking her eyes off the instrument. “When I look at this pipe organ in disrepair, I see someone lying in hospice.”
Reed estimated it would cost Vanderburgh County, which owns the organ, up to $1.5 million to restore it inside the Coliseum. That’s money the county doesn’t have. So Reed and Gieselman have proposed another solution.
They have asked Vanderburgh County to give the organ to the university. With a little luck, a lot of work, and a great deal of community support, the two plan to restore the old instrument and have it rebuilt in the campus’ Neu Chapel.
There, it will bring to life a part of Evansville’s history, and continue the nearly 100-year-old memorial to Milton Z. Tinker.
Milton Z. Tinker became the music supervisor for Evansville’s public schools in 1868. He remained in the position until his death in 1914, and many at the time credited him with instilling in Evansville’s community a sense of musical awareness and pride.
His impact on the community was so great that long before the city even had a place to house an organ, the community planned to buy one in his honor.
That opportunity came with the construction of the Coliseum. It was built in 1917 as a memorial to local soldiers who died in The Great War. Evansville dedicated the new building Easter Sunday that year. The next day, the community launched a weeklong fundraiser to buy a municipal pipe organ. They called it a Fanfaronade.
On April 9, 1917, The Evansville Courier wrote: The Fanfaronade “will afford those who attend, which is expected will include every person in the city and neighboring points, varied programs of high class entertainment every afternoon and evening of the ensuing week. At the same time it will enable them to contribute their mite toward the fund with which the Coliseum authorities intend to install in the main hall a pipe organ, equal to any in the country, this is to be a memorial to the late Prof. Z. M. Tinker, for years supervisor of music in the local public schools.”
The Fanfaronade ended a success. And the Milton Z. Tinker Memorial Pipe Organ turned out to be more than equal to the average municipal pipe organ, Reed said. In fact, there are few like it in the world.
The Tinker Organ was built in Columbus, Ohio, to make music for the Methodist Church’s 100th anniversary celebration. After the celebration ended, Evansville bought that organ, had it retrofitted and installed in the Coliseum in 1919.
50 years of music
“Remember, in 1919 you didn’t have loud speakers,” Reed said. “One of the only ways to get music into a loud space was to build a large pipe organ.”
The organ comprises around 4,000 pipes housed in four different rooms around the edges of the Coliseum. The largest is 32 feet long, taller than the building. It is essentially a long wooden box that folds back and forth across itself. The smallest is little more than a whistle.
Each pipe can only make one sound. Some are booming, almost overpowering, others can barely be heard. It’s only when played together they create symphony, Gieselman said.
“It’s just like the complexities of a real orchestra,” Gieselman said. “There are so many sounds, voices, coming out of the organ. It is just a grand instrument.”
She gazed at a pipe-filled backroom in the Coliseum. Many of the pipes are still positioned as they were nearly a century ago. Others lay discarded on the floor.
It was uncommon such a grand — expensive — instrument be built in honor of a common man, Gieselman said. Most organs, if they were named for someone, were named for a rich person who donated the money to have it built.
“This was built and named for an ideal,” Gieselman said. “So much money is being cut from the arts. This lifts up the arts.”
Gieselman and Reed hope that the Evansville community will unite once again over the Tinker Memorial Organ, this time to save it.
The University’s Neu Chapel has raised enough money to remove the organ — pipe by pipe — from the Coliseum to a safer storage facility. Then Reed and Gieselman will begin raising money for its restoration.
Eventually, they hope to install the grand instrument in a remodeled Neu Chapel, which Gieselman said will be rebuilt and expanded to welcome people of all faiths.
That project may be years from completion, but the two can already hear the music.