Organ donors give new life to Swasey sound

Swasey 100
March 8, 2024

When William Osborne took his final bow on the Swasey Chapel stage in 2003, he left behind an instrument that had been part of his life for more than four decades.

Few activities at Denison gave Osborne more pleasure than playing the Austin organ and hearing the melodious sounds from the 3,207 pipes located behind the plaster grilles above the stage.

“That organ was only part of what I did at Denison, but it was the means by which I expressed myself most intimately,” said Osborne, a distinguished professor emeritus of fine arts. “It became a friend.”

Osborne hasn’t played that pipe organ since his retirement, but through his generosity, he’s ensured others will have the opportunity for years to come.

He is the lead donor in a fundraising project that generated nearly $280,000 to renovate the organ and pipes of an instrument that, like Swasey Chapel itself, is celebrating its 100th anniversary. James Carpenter ’54 and T.J. Hodgman ’78 are also among the Denisonians who made gifts to restore and modernize it.

Osborne, who recorded three albums featuring the organ, is delighted to contribute to a fundraiser that began more than four years ago. He arrived at Denison in 1961 as assistant professor of music, university organist, director of choral organizations, and founder of the Denison Singers, the vocal ensemble that’s performed throughout the country and in Europe and South America.

Organizers of the long-running Vail Series, which hosts musical and artistic performances in Swasey, plan to commemorate the organ’s makeover in the fall of 2024. Music professor Ching-chu Hu, director of the Vail Series, acknowledged that some organists could not play at the chapel in recent years because of its limitations.

“A lot of it had fallen into disrepair,” Hu said. “The pipes needed to be fixed, and the console was missing electrical components. Our donors really stepped up to make this project a reality.”

A representative from Austin Organs, Inc. confirmed just how much the donors’ gift is saving the university. He said to build the current pipe organ from scratch would cost nearly $1.7 million.

The Hartford, Connecticut, company still has the contract from Denison’s 1923 purchase bearing Ambrose Swasey’s signature. The organ cost $17,000 – part of the $400,000 that Swasey, the former Denison board of trustees president, donated to build the chapel.

The latest renovation includes a new console and wiring, a computerized system, and a refurbishing of the existing pipes.

“The beautiful organ in Swasey Chapel is such an asset to Denison,” Hu said. “It’s been such a massive project and we’re excited to have it back in full working condition.”

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