[The original version of this article was published in the July, 2010 issue of “Console Crier,” the newsletter of the Chicago Chapter of the American Guild of Organists]

    I have a great passion—the welfare of old pipe organs. Although I am very grateful for the opportunities that have come my way to participate in the creation of new instruments, chiefly as a voicer, tonal finisher or consultant, it’s always been the old organs whose stories and voices held the greatest appeal. Whether a Casavant, Hinners, Kimball, Skinner, Möller, Wurlitzer, or Barton, it didn’t matter. The opportunity to listen, explore, discover, and learn was irresistible.

    The notion of restoring an old electro-pneumatic pipe organ with no changes or additions is a concept that’s relatively new in North America. Until recent times, those of us who were serious about organ restoration—particularly the electro-pneumatic instruments—found only a few allies and indulgent friends. The focus remained on building new organs to replace old ones. Sometimes the only consideration to the heritage of an old instrument was the retention of a Pedal Bourdon or a set of chimes from an organ whose life was about to end. Or consider the number of times big, open wood pedal Diapasons lost their lives to zinc Violones in organs whose chassis were thought good enough to function for another decade or two. Five hundred pounds of metal was thought to be better than a forest of lumber. In either case, it’s not much of a legacy. I guess I’m showing my colors.

    But we developed colleagues and found mentors. It seems that a goodly number of us serious about the restoration of electro-pneumatic organs have worked for, or with, Nick Thomson-Allen, Joe Dzeda, Nelson Barden (as in my case) or Ed Stout at one time or another. These gentlemen all continue to lead by example, and are our inspiration.

    Often, initial interest in old organs stirred from something largely nonacademic, emotional, and entirely subjective: I loved the sounds that the old organs produced that the new ones did not. That expanded to admiration for the craftsmanship evident in the building and installation of these instruments, and later, becoming engrossed in the histories and business practices of the companies that produced them. As an example, a recent project I greatly enjoyed was the reconstruction and editing of a book on Wurlitzer pipe organs. Although the theatre organ may not exactly be your cup of tea, the practices and principles that went into the creation of these instruments of the ’teens and ’twenties have much to teach contemporary organbuilders and restorers. Today, simple economics and the apparent rise of the nonliturgical church, challenge the existence of the organ in all forms throughout our culture. This casts new and important light on decisions regarding the future of old instruments. In short, fewer new pipe organs are being built, and organ restoration is now “in.” So much so, in fact, that larger factory-type companies are now vying for organ restoration contracts where before there was disinterest. As recently as five years ago, some factory firms showed little regard for earlier generations of their own offspring, let alone an instrument by another builder. Organs were altered, modified and conglomerated at whim.

    So, can large companies, set up to build new instruments, restore old ones? They offer extensive facilities, a large work force, and speedy turnaround time. They market complete, in-house services to clients, much like placing yourself in the hands of Allstate. In fact, it was that very analogy the clinched a deal for the restoration of a large organ by a factory firm quite new to the concept of restoration. The small-shop organ restorer must match that with extensive knowledge, experience, attention to detail, artisan craft, an exemplary reputation built on integrity, and a genuine love and understanding of the particular instrument. To that must be added one final and essential component: a knowledgeable, committed client.

    Nelson Barden has commented that a prime quality for any restorer is the ability to “clean with gladness.” The next principle to be learned is what he calls the farmer’s secret: you can restore anything if your junk pile is big enough. In addition, there must be the ability to suppress one’s ego, allowing the aesthetic sense of the original builder to live on.

    When the Music Institute of Chicago took over the facility that now houses Nichols Concert Hall, they inherited the Skinner organ (Opus 208, 1914) by default. James Brown, head of the keyboard division, immediately sensed the opportunity it represented. Later, with the leadership, support, and vision of Mr. Brown, Ms. Alexandra Nicholas (whose family made possible the renovation of this space), Mrs. Florence Boone (a staunch Institute supporter and patroness of the arts), and the work of a dedicated committee, plans for the restoration of this organ took shape.

    In any project involving pipe organs and the spaces that house them, there are bound to be a few bumps along the way and a detour or two. In this case, during the initial transition from church to concert hall, the original Spencer blower, in fact the entire basement blower room and wind conductors, sadly disappeared. The console cable was chopped, and its windline dumpstered. The console itself was left sitting off over in a far corner. The organ was dead. A good-faith effort was made by local organ technicians to make the organ playable again. With the understanding that it was only to be temporary, these technicians ran a mass of telephone cables from the organ loft to a frightening junction box hidden inside a column. A one-horsepower BOBCO blower was set up in a dust-laden attic room, plastic sewer pipe was run, the console was placed on a movable platform, and the whole thing was hitched up.

    Yes, the organ played. But the one-horsepower blower could not perform to the level of the original five-horsepower Spencer, once the occupant of the long-gone basement blower room. The organ was underpowered and asthmatic. So what to do? Well, our resourceful friends cut off the wind conductor to the Swell and added a second little blower just for that division. An extension cord supplied power. The original static reservoir had been retained and was placed in the attic. The gnawing tooth of time had not been kind. It had been poorly recovered once already. It was dirty, cracked, and leaky. Large globs of silicone sealant were in evidence everywhere.

    The console was rickety, but intact. At some point, white paint, intended to match surrounding woodwork, had been liberally applied to the back, top, one end, and half of the music rack—just the parts that showed. After 90 years of faithful service, it could only be described in one term—beat.

    In no way do I wish to be critical of others’ work and, although far from ideal, it was an improvement. After all, the organ had been completely mute, and now and it sounded…better. So much so that it could be played in recital by James Brown in June of 2004, celebrating the first anniversary of this facility. We entered the project at this point.

    Although the organ was challenged by its altered, inadequate, wind system and some very inelegant wiring, the condition of the pipework was superb. The LaMarche brothers had added three stops in the 1930s. These stops—Great Octave, Twelfth, and Fifteenth—were controlled by tilting tablets cut into the coupler rail. The pipework is of excellent manufacture, and is now considered historic in its own right.

    The first item on the agenda was finding a replacement blower of ample capacity and recreating a proper basement blower room. As luck would have it, a five-horsepower Spencer blower from 1914—the same year as Opus 208—was located. It had originally been installed with an organ of similar size, Skinner Opus 229 at Second Congregational Church, Oberlin, Ohio. In its 94th year and completely restored with new paint, new felt, new bearings, and re-baked windings, that blower lives on functioning perfectly. Next, space to house the restored blower had to be found and developed. After reviewing a number of options, a site was located downstairs that was just large enough to accommodate the restored Spencer and large static reservoir, now happily returned to its proper vertical position. New sheet steel wind conductors were run to the organ loft and under the stage. The increased pressure and volume made the organ speak with much more authority. The console was stripped of its zebra finish, wood repaired, joints reglued, and a rubbed finish duplicating the appearance of the original applied. The original ivory keyboards were restored and rebushed. All internal pneumatic actions were restored, and the three added tilting tablets controlling the LaMarche stops were removed. Using vintage Skinner parts and drawknobs, we placed three additional stops in the Great stop jamb, and three traces to the original combination machine. It now appears as if they had always been there. In the spirit of full disclosure, we did make one important change that may be easily reversed should that be the desire in some future time. The console cable that ran through fire hose and left piled on stage was both horribly unsightly and dangerous. In order to eliminate that problem, we decided, after careful study, to install a small multiplex connection system between the console and the organ loft. This allows the console to be moved quickly on and off stage, a necessity in a concert hall setting. The console retains all its original electro-pneumatic switching and combination machinery completely restored. Again, by simple replacement of the cable between the organ loft and console, the change is immediately reversed, and all evidence removed.

    In the case of the Skinner organ of First United Methodist Church, Oak Park (Opus 528, 1925), the instrument was completely intact—a restorer’s dream. It was failing, tired, leaky, and dirty, but all there, calling out for attention, and waiting patiently. The project is due entirely to the vision and work of one man, Mike Shawgo. The restoration of the organ has had some unexpected benefits: interest in the organ has revitalized the entire church. The interior of the sanctuary was cleaned and painted, resulting in a marked improvement in acoustics. New members are walking in the door, and now the organ will require only routine tuning and maintenance for the next 50–60 years.

    Organ Historical Society has cited the Skinner organs of the Music Institute and First United Methodist, Oak Park. The citation of both instruments occurred before restoration. The OHS and its program to recognize historic instruments play a valuable role in securing their welfare, one that is not to be underestimated. I applaud them in their preservation efforts. Perhaps a few of you have read about recent work done to the landmark Æolian-Skinner organs at the Groton School, Church of the Advent, Boston, and Calvary Church, Memphis. I felt privileged to have assist Jonathan Ambrosino in pipework restoration and restorative voicing. Rather sweeping changes had occurred to all of these instruments, and in each case, there was a sure and certain conviction to attempt to regain something lost.

    The future of organs like the Music Institute’s 1914 Skinner and the Oak Park Skinner are fairly secure. These organs were built to be taken apart and restored. Later organs of equal importance historically and musically are jeopardized. Please consider the future of the old and not-so-old instruments in your charge carefully. Some are truly landmarks quietly awaiting notice by a future generation.

    We’re preserving our musical heritage by conserving the instruments for which specific music was written. Why is that important? We know the music, but do we know the sounds that were heard by the ears of the composers and performers? For some, Leo Sowerby is just as an important composer as Bach. What do we know about the organs Sowerby knew other than a few words on a stoplist? For me, it’s even more basic. I think the sounds are beautiful.

    Restoration is cost-effective. Many of the materials that went into the creation of these old instruments are no longer available at any price. What can you expect from a first-class restoration? An organ that sounds and functions as it did when it was new: quiet, reliable, in good voice, looking beautiful, and ready for a half-century of trouble-free operation. Often restoration can be accomplished in phases, allowing the use of portions of the instrument for much of the project, a distinct benefit. How do you sell or evidence the need for a restoration? Keep complete and permanent records of mechanical and tuning issues.

    What can you as musicians do to protect the future of the instruments you play? First, gather together and maintain an archive of organ information containing contracts, correspondence, drawings, and service records; then keep it in a safe place. Second, keep your blower room spotlessly clean. If the instrument shows clear signs of care, it’s likely to be respected and treated well.

    Jeff Weiler  © 2009, 2012, 2016