Jun 11, 2012

A Long Overdue Tale...

The other evening, Mary Ann and I were dining out.  We got into a pleasant conversation with our server who informed us that she was a trained "piano technician" looking for a full-time position.  We discussed the options available to her including working in the pipe organ industry.  When I got home, I sent her the names of a couple of contacts who might be useful in her search.  I also wanted to send her some information on the pipe organ that I restored for a church in Fayetteville, but to my amazement, I have never done a blog entry on the subject.  Here is an attempt to tell this interesting tale.

In 1984, my late wife Margo and I were attending St. Anthony's Catholic Church in Fayetteville.  The parish asked if I would serve as choir director and I accepted.  At that time, the choir (and the congregation, by extension) was being accompanied by a small Hammond electronic device that had seen better days.  Our organist, Mrs. Anne Callahan, was very capable, but the Hammond struggled to produce enough volume to support an ensemble.  I had a crazy notion that I mentioned to Anne one evening after choir practice.  What would she think about the church acquiring and restoring a real pipe organ?  I explained that I had some experience in organ restoration, having assisted in the restoration of a large theater organ while in high school.  I also explained that there was an organization called the Organ Clearing House, run by a fellow named Alan Laufman, that helped churches locate potential candidate organs that were available for restoration.  How hard could it be!?!?

Anne had her doubts about the parish's ability to take on such a project, but said that she'd love to have a real pipe organ in the church.  She was originally from Meadville, PA, and had studied music at both Villa Maria College, where she studied organ under Sister M. Fabiola and earned a B.S. degree, and the Pennsylvania College of Music.  She had performed on many real pipe organs and had an appreciation of the difference it could make in our worship music.

I first spoke to Father Tom Field, our pastor.  He was very positive in his response.  I have always felt a debt of gratitude for his support, without which the project could not have moved forward.  I then wrote up a proposal for the Parish Council.  I suggested that we have a fund raiser to get parishioners involved in the project and have a separate fund devoted to the "organ project."  I informed them that I had been looking at used organs and was quite certain that we could locate an appropriate sized instrument for our little church for under $2,000.  I volunteered to lead the restoration project, and guessed that if we had even a handful of volunteers, it might be possible to complete the job in a year.

The council members were polite as they informed me that the church had trouble raising enough funds to pay the light bills and mortgage.  They did, however give me a green light to try to raise funds and to start searching for an instrument.  I wrote a letter for distribution at the following Sunday's Mass, and we distributed it.  On Sunday evening, I received a phone call.  One of the couples in the parish who chose to remain anonymous wanted to donate $1,000 and challenged the rest of the parish to match it!  I couldn't believe the generosity!  These folks have now gone on to their eternal reward, so I have no qualms about giving public thanks to Wilfred and Ruby Knies.  Their gift truly enabled the project more than any other single event.  Within a few weeks, we had received pledges and gifts of over $2,000, which was the threshold that I believed was needed to proceed.

In the meantime, I had "spread the word" that we were in the hunt for a suitable instrument.  I spoke with Alan Laufman and he provided a list of organs in the southeastern states that we might want to consider.  Margo and I drove to Chattanooga, Nashville, Atlanta, and Rome, GA to look at instruments, but none were satisfactory.  One was way too large, several were way too damaged or incomplete for a group of amateurs to undertake.  Then one day I received a call from a friend in Huntsville, David Stone, who owned the Booklegger bookstore.  David had seen a strange ad in the classified section of Bookman's Weekly that was intriguing, "Pipe organ, dismantled, Cullman, Alabama, call xxx-xxx-xxxxx."

The following week, Margo and I had planned a trip to Grove Hill, AL, to visit her aunt.  I jotted down the number that David had provided and took it "just in case."  As fortune would have it, I called the number as we were returning home on Sunday. It was the number of a salvage yard.  It seems that a Baptist Church in Cullman had received the gift of a pipe organ from some church in Florida.  It arrived on a truck in "thousands of pieces."  The church in Cullman had no clue how to reassemble such an instrument so they gave it to this salvage dealer to haul off and store.  If we wanted to take a look, the dealer would be glad to meet us at his warehouse.  We agreed on a time, got directions, and met him there late that Sunday afternoon.  We looked over what we could see without lights and I decided to go back with proper flashlights in a few days.  The owner told me he wanted $1,000 for the instrument and wouldn't consider anything less.  He had no idea how old it was or how many ranks of pipes it had.  The console was positioned in such a way that I couldn't get access to the stop tabs, which might have given me a clue as to the size of the instrument.  It was certainly worth another trip.

A week later, I returned to Cullman with Father Tom, our pastor.  We spent a few hours studying the situation.  Our conclusions were that the organ was of the electropneumatic design, and was probably complete except for a set of chimes that had been part of the original installation.  It had a console dating to 1958, when the organ had been "rebuilt by Joseph H. DeWolfe, of Jacksonville" according to an attached engraved plate.  It had suffered some damage in transport, but not anything that couldn't be repaired.  I recommended to Father Tom that we buy the organ and move it into the parish hall in Fayetteville.  A week later, we did that with the help of Richard Paladino, Vic Finch, and a few other volunteers whose names I can't recall.  We rented a moving van to move the console, the several windchests, the blower and blower motor (weighing a couple of hundred pounds!), miscellaneous parts, and 567 pipes, which we very carefully placed in padded boxes.

Typical valve mechanism
 for a single pipe 

Electropneumatic action was introduced in the late 19th century.  When a key is depressed on the console, an electric current is sent to the organ loft where one or more tiny electromagnets are activated that operate leather and wood valves.  These valves admit pressurized air to larger valves that ultimately admit air to the selected pipes, producing sound.  This all occurs in a split second.  This type of action enables the console to be located at a distance from the pipe location.

The first job was to clean and inventory the pipes.  We wiped them down to remove years of accumulated grime.  I built shallow storage boxes that are about 6 feet long and 18 inches wide and only a few inches deep.  These are stackable, and were used to store the medium and smaller pipes.  The largest pipes are up to 8 feet in length and were simply stacked against a wall.  Some pipes are of metal construction while others are wood.  While doing this inventory, we confirmed that there were no missing pipes.  Based on the stop tabs on the console, we could tell that as of 1958 the organ was supposed to have a certain configuration. It was divided into three so-called "divisions," each associated with one of the two keyboards or with the foot-operated pedals.  These were identified as follows:

Great Division:Swell Division:Pedal Division:
Open Diapason - 8'Viola - 8'Bourdon - 16'
Melodia - 8'Stopped Diapason - 8'
Dulciana - 8'Vox Celeste - 8'
Octave - 4'Aeoline - 8'
Flute Harmonic - 8'

We were able to relate this list to individual windchests and sets of similar-looking pipes to determine that everything was present and accounted for.  The 4', 8', and 16' notations indicate which octave the rank is rooted in.  An 8' rank of pipes plays in unison with a piano, whereas the 4' rank sounds an octave higher and the 16' rank plays an octave lower.

The blower was
old but usable
I had to determine exactly how we were going to fit this instrument into the available space. Father Tom had made it clear that the so-called facade pipes would be acceptable on display in the sanctuary but he wanted all the other components hidden.  We had a couple of attic spaces that adjoined the sanctuary, so I made scale models of those spaces and modeled the windchests and air reservoirs and pipes.  I then played with these, shuffling and rearranging components to determine how we might install the whole arrangement and still be able to access every pipe for tuning and servicing.  My conclusion was that certain pipes would have to be mounted on the underside of the roof!

An inspection of the windchests revealed that rodents had feasted on the leather that made up the shell of each valve.  They would all have to be rebuilt.  Some pipes have as many as three individual valves, so we were facing literally hundreds of rebuilds.  I moved the windchests to our house, converted the great room into an organ shop, and I contacted Dennis Milnar of the Milnar Organ Company in Eagleville, TN.  He graciously offered to help us.  The agreement was simple - We would buy our supplies from him and he would train and coach us in the processes we wanted to perform ourselves.  In fact, without the help of Dennis and his lovely wife Connie, this organ would never have gotten restored.

Margo and I spent a Saturday at the Milnars' and were trained in the rebuilding of damaged and aged primary and secondary valves.  We learned that the delicate paper-thin leather on the valves comes from Germany and is made from the skin of the bellies of lambs.  We also learned how to strip the old valve and prepare it for gluing, how to cut the replacement leather, and of course, proper gluing techniques.  For the next 18 months (complicated by a long-term job assignment to California) every time I was home I rebuilt organ valves.  After about the first 500, it feels repetitive!

In the meantime, along with volunteers at the church, we opened up the interior walls and installed fabric sound curtains.  We constructed a "dog house" outside to house the blower, and we designed and built the structure needed to support the windchests and pipes.  And then one of many little coincidences (miracles in which God chooses to remain anonymous) occurred.  It had to do with the restoration of the console.

One Sunday, Father Tom called me over after Mass to introduce me to a new parishioner.  He knew I had been looking for someone willing to tackle the rewiring of the console while I was finishing up the mountain of valves.  "I'd like you to meet Dietmar Berngruber," he said. "Dietmar was born and raised in Germany, and as a young man he wanted to be an organ builder.  He'd like to be given the chance to rebuild the console."  I was speechless.  Needless to say, the offer was gratefully accepted and a week later the console resided in Dietmar's garage.  He worked for an electronics firm.  The reconstructed console is absolutely inspiring - every wire color coded and arrayed in bound groups.  It looks like the kind of wiring you'd expect to see in a space craft.

I began a quest to find the multi-conductor wire needed to connect the console with the switchgear in the so-called "loft" where the pipes are located.  I decided to visit the company in Huntsville that had installed the office phone system at my place of employment.  I was told by the front office to proceed back to a certain warehouse and talk to the foreman.  I approached the elderly gentleman and told him I needed 58 feet of 60-pair cable and explained what it was to be used for.  "Ah," he replied.  "It's fo' de work of de Lawd!"  He then produced a partial reel and said we should lay it out in the parking lot to measure it.  If there was enough, it was ours.  There were two extra feet of this very expensive cable.

Gradually everything came together.  We paid the Milnar firm to repair some damaged pipes and check our work as we completed each windchest.  They were wonderful to work with and extremely supportive of this ambitious undertaking.

As all this was taking place, I had been on a personal quest to learn the origin of this instrument.  What was the mysterious "church in Florida" that had donated it to a Baptist Church in Cullman?  I had a couple of clues.  On the middle C of the diapason rank of pipes was engraved "Op. 984."  And that number was stamped into many of the wooden parts as well.  That led me to believe that this organ was Opus 984 of some organ builder, but which one, and when was it built?  Then, in one of the windchests, I found a receipt for a bill paid by the Centenary Methodist Church of Quincy, Florida.  I contacted the historian of the Organ Historical Society, Mr. Stephen Pinel.  I explained the information that I had available and within minutes he called me back.  "Opus 984 of the Louisville firm, Henry Pilchers Sons, was installed in June, 1918 at the Centenary Methodist Church.  The original cost was $2,500."  Mystery solved.  By the way, after this restoration was completed, the insurance company estimated the replacement value of the instrument to be $52,000!

Amazingly (another one of those coincidences), I knew of someone from Quincy, Florida.  A few weeks before this conversation, I had heard a piece on National Public Radio while driving to work.  It was an interesting piece on women in ministry, and it featured a segment on Rev. Birdie Pittman, a native of Quincy, who was serving at the Episcopal Church of the Nativity in Huntsville, Alabama, only a couple of blocks from where I worked.  I contacted Rev. Pittman and asked if she knew anyone associated with the Centenary Methodist Church.  She graciously introduced me to her friend, the choir director, who introduced me to the previous choir director.  I was provided a picture of the choir and organ as it appeared in 1939.

Assembly proceeded slowly as components were completed.  Finally, enough of the organ was assembled and hooked up so we could start tuning and voicing the pipes.  We had the console in place but had not yet installed the pedals or the bench.  Anne Callahan arrived for choir practice, saw the console, and rushed over to hear her first chords on the "new" instrument.  She stood playing with the biggest smile ever and tears in her eyes.  And there were plenty of other tears, too.

The organ as it appeared in 1939, with the Centenary Methodist Church choir
Finally, it was time for an inaugural concert.  On March 26, 1988, nearly 4 years after this crazy project had started, we could celebrate its completion.  We printed a four-page program describing the instrument and a little bit of its history.  The church was packed.  Father Tom offered words of thanks and prayed that the instrument would serve to enhance our worship. Then, it was time for an evening of music:
Dona Nobis Pacem (with the choir)...................arr. by Mark G. Rachelski

Marche Romaine .........................................................................C. Gounod
Meditation from Thais ..............................................................J. Massenet
Toccata and Fugue in D minor .....................................................J.S. Bach
Jesu, Joy of Man's Desiring (with the choir)................................J.S. Bach

The Palms (with soloist R. Mead).................................................J.B. Faure
Canon in D .................................................................................J. Pachelbel
Humoreske ....................................................................................A. Dvorak
Phantasie (K. 608) ....................................................................W.A. Mozart
Hallelujah Chorus ......................................................................G.F. Handel

By the time the last echo had faded, we knew we had done a good thing.  And to this day, the organ comes to life each Sunday to aid this congregation in making "a joyous noise unto the Lord."

The engraved plate that now adorns the front of the console sums up the story, 
"This organ, Opus #984 of Henry Pilcher's Sons, Louisville, Kentucky, was originally installed in Centenary Methodist Church, Quincy, Florida, in June, 1918.
Alterations were made and a new console added in February, 1958, by Joseph H. DeWolfe of Jacksonville.

The organ has been lovingly restored and installed in the Catholic Church of St. Anthony, Fayetteville, Tennessee, by the Milnar Organ Company, Eagleville, Tennessee, and the members of the church.  March, 1988

To the Greater Glory of God"

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