Bernard A. Drew: Into the catacomb to find the Orgoblo

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GREAT BARRINGTON >> My favorite of old-time New Yorker wordsmith Joseph Mitchell's essays is "Up in the Old Hotel," his 1952 story about Louis Morino, owner of Sloppy Louie's, an eatery on the ground floor of an old hotel at 92 South St., near the Fulton Fish Market. Owl-faced Morino admits to the writer he needs more space for tables and is thinking of using the building's second floor. He admits he has never been to any of the building's third through sixth floors. They are not used and are sealed off. His business has been there 20 years, and he's never gone to look. Mitchell is aghast.

The only way to reach those upper floors is through an old freight elevator, which has been blocked off at the ceiling of the second floor. Morino is reticent. Mitchell can't wait. They find a ladder, open the trap door, maneuver the rope-operated elevator and go exploring.

That's a metaphor if ever I saw one for the way many of us function in our own tight worlds, seldom looking beyond what's in front of us.

I took this message to heart. I had to go look at some upper floors. Or in my case, a lower one. A basement.

In a column in this space a few months back I described William Hall Walker's 1915 stream-fed air conditioner at his sprawling Brookside estate in Great Barrington. I ended wondering if there is any remnant of the curious system still in the old manor house.

The property is now Joseph Eisner Camp for Living Judaism, which has an Sactive year-round program. Donna and I visited Brookside in early November. Business Manager Lauren Hyde introduced us to Facilities Director Oliver Palma.

The mansion is an anomaly in a robust, year-round camp facility. The building has a new roof, Palma said, but it's a challenge to keep the building in best shape when it is sometimes used to board senior employees, sometimes hosts weddings. It is designated an emergency shelter for upwards of 550 campers. In fact, the building is the most solid in Great Barrington. That's because, after an earlier house on the foundation suffered a fire more than a century ago, then-owner William Stanley rebuilt with foot-thick concrete walls.

Palma gave us a quick tour of the manor house's first floor. He opened the side panel of the huge organ, to show us the wooden and brass pipes. And then he led us to the basement, which has at three huge oil burners for heat. In several places, one can see the old stone basement walls and the newer concrete foundations put in after the fire or to support new additions.

Palma led us to an entrance to the catacombs. It was a small door, halfway up the wall. Beyond, the basement was built at half level. Why? To conserve on concrete?

Go ahead, Palma urged. He'd stay behind. (He'd been in there plenty of times.) Clutching my Eveready Energizer LED flashlight, I squat-crawled into the space beneath the music room to encounter a large electric-motored blower for the custom pipe organ. The organ, later research told me, is an Aeolian Opus 1129, made in 1910, two manuals, 48 stops, 29 ranks, electro-pneumatic chests. It cost $19,750 plus more for the carved and gilded console. It was custom-made for the Tudor-style music room, "with the Echo located above the ceiling, requiring the services of a stunted midget contortionist for tuning access," observed organ historian Paul Opel in 1998.

Probably the same contortionist tended the bellows in the basement.

I duck-waddled into the next space, where I found parts of an earlier blower made by Spencer Steel Orgoblo of Hartford, according to a nameplate. It was a 3-horsepower unit capable of 1,165 rpm. You don't see those every day.

I crawled deeper, now on my hands and knees on the concrete floor, bumping my head, ducking below insulated hot-air pipes, to the extremities of the building. The passage got lower and lower. I found two curious wooden boxlike contraptions, probably more organ parts. But there was no sign of a tub, pipe, vent, hole in the wall, anything that might go with an air conditioner. The Starr Engineering a-c equipment was gone.

I bumped my head twice more before I found the egress. I squirmed down to the floor and stood straight again.

It was a cool tour. I didn't find the air conditioner. But I can now attest to the Orgoblo!

You know what I found. What did Mitchell and Morino discover in the old hotel? That would give away someone else's story.

Bernard A. Drew is a regular Eagle contributor.


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