The Organ Historical Society is preparing to move its entire operation to the splendid 42 acre estate, Stoneleigh, in Villanova, Pennsylvania. This extraordinary event has come about because of the family of John and Chara Haas, whose love of nature and music brought two groups together to share their vision of offering the property to public use, The Natural Lands Trust, and The Organ Historical Society. In many ways the word “preservation” provides the great operative link between OHS and NLT, two groups that each share more than sixty years of nonprofit enterprise.
Stoneleigh’s history was established in 1877 when Edmund Smith bought 65 acres of land on Spring Mill Road and built his home. During the coming years a number of landscaping designs were undertaken, and in 1900, following the purchase of the property by Samuel Bodine, the Tudor Revival-style home that stands today was built. In 1908 the prestigious landscape architecture firm, the Olmstead Brothers of Massachusetts was brought in to oversee the gradual transformation of the grounds, a project with which the firm was associated during the following 50 years.
Otto Haas, co-founder of the Rohm and Haas Company, purchased a portion of the estate following Samuel Bodine’s death in 1932, establishing an 80-year residency by the Haas family. His son John and his wife Chara acquired the property in 1964 and by 1996 placed the property under a conservation easement with Natural Lands Trust. They raised their five children there, living full lives that included wonderful stewardship of their home until Mr Haas died in 2011, and Mrs. Haas, the following year. Their will stipulated that the property be given to a non-profit entity, and a search was begun to determine the next steps of Stoneleigh’s long life.
During that search the OHS was invited to meet with Fred Haas, the organist-musician of the family. At about the same time the family realized that the Natural Lands Trust was surely the best choice possible to assume stewardship of this grand preserve, and thus, in the spring of 2016 it was announced that NLT would be the owners of the property, and OHS primary tenants of the splendid home.
It was the strength of the OHS Library and Archives, the world’s largest collection of materials about the pipe organ that led to this opportunity. OHS had previously, in 2010, established a search for a partner with which to pursue next steps in maintaining, preserving, and sharing this important treasure. By June of 2013 we were prepared to announce the new partnership when a call came to consider locating at Stoneleigh. It was, simply put, an astonishing moment that the entire OHS Board felt required thorough consideration.
Thus began a period of renewed considerations: First, was the home sturdy enough to bear the load; the weight of a large library collection is considerable. Would it be possible to work with the collection and establish necessary offices? After a period of initial inquiry with an architectural firm and a design group, the answer was positive. Especially exciting was the opportunity to develop spaces for presentation of educational events, symposia, concerts, and fund-raisers. During the ensuing months and years the Organ Historical Society increasingly enjoyed the wonderful generosity of the Haas family, while the intense planning efforts with the Natural Lands Trust led to a splendid relationship of trust and warm friendship.
John Milner Architects, of Chadds Ford, provided their expertise and supplied a steady stream of talented participants in the project, and Fred Haas introduced a pipe organ into the mix! He determined to bring in Aeolian-Skinner Opus 878 as a lynch pin of the plan to unite nature and music. Stoneleigh had never had a residence organ, but 1932 was the year the Haas family established residence, and this gorgeous 1931 instrument seems ready-made to fulfill the long-standing absence.
Following months of dedicated work to repurpose the spaces, the project will be brought to conclusion by early fall. Following the major cleaning necessary after such construction, Emery Brothers, Inc. (Allentown, Pennsylvania) will begin to move the organ into place on October 1, and we hope to see the organ installation completed by mid-November. Meanwhile, both Natural Lands Trust and the Organ Historical Society will establish offices, set up the library and prepare for the grand opportunities that lie ahead. We hope to welcome first visitors by the New Year!
The invitation that was offered to OHS to join in this grand experience is truly a once-in-a-lifetime opportunity. We are extremely grateful to the support and generosity of the Haas family members, the Wyncote Foundation, and the hospitable reception by the Natural Lands Trust. The Organ Historical Society has received exceptional backing from the Board, our membership, and our friends. We move forward in the hope to prove ourselves worthy recipients of this good fortune.