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Restorer ‘dials back the clock’ on an 1823 beauty

STONINGTON — Clad in a white lab coat and wire-rimmed glasses, Scot Huntington has the look of a scientist. And while he may not be experimenting with beakers and chemicals, his work of pipe organ restoration certainly requires precision, research and a lot of passion.

The Westerly resident stepped over to display the latest project in his Velvet Mill workspace on Sunday — an 1823 Thomas Hall organ he has spent the past year working to restore.

“It really is much happier now,” he said of the organ, which is the oldest American-built organ still in use in Connecticut. “Usually, they fight tooth and nail. They’re a bit like recalcitrant children that way. But this one happily accepted my work.”

Huntington estimated that he has worked on more than 30 organs since he went into the business, and this one, from the Trinity Episcopal Church in the Milton section of Litchfield, is his oldest. He had known about it even before he received the restoration contract.

Unlike most of Huntington’s other projects, this one required removing certain parts.

The instrument was modernized in 1858, and subsequently worked on by four other organ builders since 1960. While all of its restorers solved some problems, they also created others, Huntington said.

“It had a host of chronic problems,” he said. “It was a stew pot of little things that added up to major things.”

Huntington completely stripped the instrument down to its bare bones, removing extensions to the case and the pedal board added in the 1858 restoration.

“It was a matter of dialing back the clock,” he said. “Its original beauty had been hidden for a century and a half.”

Huntington said he was proud to have a part in the instrument’s rich history, and hoped to finish the project in the next two weeks. After putting the finishing touches on the 16-foot tall instrument, Huntington will send it back to its home at the church.

Huntington was one of three restorers who put forth proposals to the church to restore the organ; his proposal was not the least expensive. “There must have been something about the way I treated old organs that resonated with them,” he said.

Huntington uses his skills as an organ player in his restoration work. He holds a dual degree from the State University of New York in organ performance and elementary education, and also serves as the organist at the United Church of Stonington.

“It gives you sort of an intrinsic, internal understanding of how the organ wants to perform,” he explained.

After graduating from college, Huntington served as an apprentice to an organ builder in Vermont who also worked to restore old organs. He moved to Westerly in 1982, and rented space at Zuckermann Harpsichords International in Stonington for his business.

Along the way, he discovered his love for Westerly, where he has lived ever since.

“I fell in love with Westerly the first day I drove through town,” he said. “It reminded me of Bedford Falls in ‘It’s a Wonderful Life’’’ — at the time, he recalled, a “vibrant throwback to the 1950s.”

He has worked out of the Velvet Mill since 2000, and is the oldest tenant still in business there.

An open house and performance on the restored instrument by organist Joseph Ripka was originally scheduled for Sunday afternoon, but has been postponed to a later date because of an ice storm in the Litchfield area.

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