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Meet the doctor who built his Bratenahl home around a pipe organ fit for a cathedral

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Posted at 3:51 PM, Mar 09, 2021
and last updated 2022-08-31 11:11:13-04

BRATENAHL, Ohio — On a private lane in Cleveland’s affluent Village of Bratenahl stands an architecturally appealing home on two lots with obvious grandeur. Yet, what isn’t transparent, like the ground to sky glass and concrete that encases the home, is that it was specifically built to house a 7,406-pipe organ.

Dr. Eugene Blackstone is a cardiologist at Cleveland Clinic’s renowned thoracic and cardiovascular surgery department and a professor at Case Western Reserve University. When he isn’t saving lives and teaching students, he’s inside his 9,000-square-foot home producing musical waves on his 20th-century Aeolian-Skinner, an instrument fit for a cathedral.

Dr. Eugene and Janet Blackstone's Bratenahl home.

But it's not just a musical instrument, not when you fully realize the effort it took to build a home entirely around an organ, a realization that produces jaw-dropping awe.

Stepping inside the doorway into the foyer resembles a museum with colorful, abstract art from Cleveland artist Sam Roth mounted on both sides of the wall, adding serious jolts of color within what is otherwise a sea of white. A curved, winding staircase in front of the floor-to-ceiling glass wall in the foreground is a nonverbal invitation to a musical world upstairs.

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Sam Roth's abstract art hangs in the Blackstone residence.

Blackstone worked with the late legendary architect Richard Fleischman to design his one-of-a-kind home at a scale needed to fit the organ and all of its pipes while also having the space make sense acoustically, practically and while still appealing to the eye.

If there was anyone up for the task, it was Fleischman, says Blackstone, whose innovative work influenced over 73 churches, including one of his most cherished projects, St. Paschal Baylon in Highland Heights.

"It took a village,” Blackstone said. “We had people from New York, Pennsylvania, Wisconsin, Massachusetts. A lot of people to do something like this.”

Everything is in the details. The walls are coated with special paint with plastic particles to reflect high-frequency pitches. The number of steel beams and the concrete floor—all an ode to the music.

Designing and building a house of this scale that resembles a basilica isn’t for the faint of heart. It took nearly six years to construct, from the hand carving of each pipe to purposefully installing 4-foot by 8-foot doors to allow machines and pipes into the home during construction. Craftsmen who worked at the former Aeolian-Skinner Organ Company in Boston configured, constructed and voiced the organ and its pipes that sit in his home today.

The Blackstone pipe organ has 137 pipe ranks and 7,406 pipes. To put the scale of the organ into perspective, the first Chancel Organ at the Cathedral of St. Patrick in New York has 1,480 pipes.

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Dr. Eugene Blackstone pictured inside his Bratenahl home featuring a pipe organ.

“We are extremely patient people. We love the building part of it. We loved it when this floor was all covered with plywood. The pipe people were deathly afraid of dropping anything on it,” he said.

If building a home entirely around a pipe organ wasn’t impressive enough, the Blackstones have done this on a smaller scale before at their Birmingham, Ala., home where they lived for 30 years., on a mountain, surrounded by trees. With retirement in the forefront of their minds, moving to Cleveland and building a home from scratch to fit a massive organ and all of its pipes wasn’t in the plans, but after former Cleveland Clinic CEO Toby Cosgrove convinced him to visit and give a talk, a visit turned into a stay.

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Dr. Eugene Blackstone pictured inside his Bratenahl home featuring a pipe organ.

When Blackstone and his wife Janet, a recently retired elementary school principal, made the move to Cleveland, the parts from the organ built from their home were stored in the basement of a Cleveland Heights home while builders and architects worked together.

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Inside this 9,000-square-foot home stands a pipe organ.

Not only was the home designed in a way that was acoustically good, but its sculpture was designed to be appealing, down to the meticulous placement of each pipe.

“Architectural people and people who are interested in sculpture go wild in here,” Blackstone said of the pipes positioned to resemble waves of the ocean and grass blowing in the sand, a sight fitting for a home that overlooks Lake Erie.

The final design is a classic basilica in modern guise: a 34 by 96 foot long, nearly full-length skylight, which creates a summer-like atmosphere even in the coldest Cleveland months.

The main console of the organ dates back to around 1928, rescued from White Chapel Memorial Cemetery in Detroit after it caught fire. Blackstone had the console rebuilt from inside, including the change of color from Brown to Black Walnut to match. As someone who doesn't always stay traditional, Blackstone changed the draw knobs to English, which are typically written in German and Italian.

The 1928 console that Dr. Eugene Blackstone refurbished.

What's surprising to anyone who sits down to play is that the console sends signals to a computer system under the floor, which then relays the appropriate sounds to the pipes.

“The organist thinks he is playing the organ. But actually what he's doing is playing the computer. The computer is then sending signals out to each of these pipes to open the little air valves,” said Blackstone, describing the Ethernet cables that run from one end of his home to the other.

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Inside this 9,000-square-foot home stands a pipe organ.

From the time he was 17, Blackstone perfected the piano before moving on to the organ, which he played in one to two churches every Sunday for decades. To keep the connection to music, he built an electronic organ in the army.

Blackstone’s musical interest is a family affair. Both his parents, his wife, son and daughter all played the violin. Music is in the Blackstone blood, going back several generations.

“My kids know that when they come to visit, they have to pack their tuxes because they are either playing with us, or they are in black tie events that go on here,” said Blackstone, who along with Janet, find free time to mentor and teach the next generation of organists.

Prior to the pandemic, the Blackstones hosted students from the Cleveland Institute of Music as well as recitals throughout the year, often squeezing 100-plus people into the space. It's a feeling the Blackstones hope to bring back soon. Only time will tell when they can once again open up their home to guests longing to hear the sounds they're lucky enough to hear on a daily basis.

“We miss the students, and so does the organ. The organ is much better if it's played all the time,” he said.