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Thread: When is an organ no longer worth saving?

  1. #1
    p Piano steverose's Avatar
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    Feb 2016
    Finger Lakes

    When is an organ no longer worth saving?

    I mean honestly, there has to be a point when some of you have looked at a pipe organ and been like, there is just nothing here that is of any value anymore, whether musical or historical or even just material value. Like an organ that has been moved multiple times so it is not in a space that it was designed for? Or an historic organ with no original pipes anymore, or for that matter original chests? How about a tracker organ where the tracker action only works to couple manuals and pedals with key contacts added to activate the valves? Is there a time, or a condition that makes you say, look we can make this work but you would be better off starting completely over again? Now, let's throw a real wrench in here. What if you were dealing with a church or institution that didn't have the funds for a new pipe organ and was considering going digital? Would you still advise the same, or would you be more likely to change your tune in favor of keeping what was there since it is pipes and repairing or enhancing however possible? This is just my curiosity coming out here, but I look forward to hearing some varied and impassioned opinions and/or arguments. And Begin.....
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  2. #2
    pp Pianissimo Piperdane's Avatar
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    Jul 2016
    Tucson, AZ

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    Quote Originally Posted by steverose View Post
    What if you were dealing with a church or institution that didn't have the funds for a new pipe organ and was considering going digital? Would you still advise the same, or would you be more likely to change your tune in favor of keeping what was there since it is pipes and repairing or enhancing however possible?
    Rebuilding the existing organ comes to mind. Certainly cheaper than total replacement. If you've got pipes now, do whatever it takes to not convert to digital. As good as some digital organs are the sound is still emitting from a speaker cabinet. There's is something about wind blown sound that just can't be duplicated, imho.

    My former parish faced this same problem ... the pipe organ needed extensive rebuilding and there was no money for this to be done. The church secured a consultant, who along with the organ committee, the pastor, and the current organ technician, were able to draw up a plan for rebuilding and moving the console. That presentation to the congregation also had pictures of what it was going to look like when completed.

    Suddenly, after the congregation voted in favor of the project, 4 families came forth with one half of the total expenses ($101k) and the remainder was to come out of a memorial gift that was left by a parishioner when he died.

    Churches will always say 'there is no money' for this and that ... but there is money in the congregation ... and with all the right tools in place and a little prodding of those who are known to have given funds for other projects in the past, there is great hope that the project can be accomplished.

    That former church signed a contract for $200k late last year. The extant pipe organ will be removed at the end of 2017 and be enlarged and re-installed by August of 2018.

    The keyword phrase above is "signed a contract" ... Pipe organ builders, even independent regional ones, always have a backlog of projects in the workings. It's difficult to convince any congregation to "sign" something that they won't "see" until 18 or more months later. We had to convince them that they were not buying doors, windows and toilets, from Home depot, meaning that the builder needs a portion of the funds up front in order to start putting it on their schedule. That's the way it works in the organ building world.

    In my current church I play on an AOB analog (not a digital organ) which does a fair to good job for what it is. We are able to keep this monster going as a member of the church is a retired electronics engineer and also that one of the former employees of the AOB company (defunct since 1994 I believe) is still working on these organs and repairs boards and offers wonderful advice when we have a problem. It's worth repairing to us because of its wonderful ensemble and solo stop sounds ... so it is kept in top notch working order all the time, no matter what it takes. The organ plays a very integral part in our congregations life.

  3. #3
    mp Mezzo-Piano AllenAnalog's Avatar
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    Nov 2014
    Denver, Colorado

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    As much as I love pipe organs and have been associated with many over my lifetime, not every pipe organ is worth saving IMHO. I don't want to start an argument but let's face it, some instruments were not very good to start with and time has not been their friend. Instruments with major water and rodent damage may be beyond salvation for any reasonable price unless they are of significant historical importance.

    Organs that have been damaged by years of well-meaning but incompetent amateurs or by butcher-style "tonal updates" may require extraordinary efforts to be brought back to any form of decent musical instrument. Small tubby-sounding organs with mostly 8-foot stops are not something that inspires congregations to pony up the bucks to resurrect that sound.

    When decent and still repairable used electronic organs can be had for less than $10,000 these days one has to ask whether supporting the musical needs of the church is more important than salvaging a questionable instrument for ten to forty times that cost. Since traditional worship with choir and organ finding fewer places in today's churches, I worry that having a silent non-working organ only pushes the trend further.

    Perhaps keeping a non-working pipe organ intact and installing a "temporary" electronic substitute alongside it is a slippery slope to never rebuilding the pipe organ but many small congregations are struggling to keep the roof overhead from leaking, given dwindling membership. So I don't think the picture is as rosy as Piperdane paints in many older rural or downtown churches.

    Main: Allen RMWTHEA.3 with Rocky Mount piano, Allen 423-C + Gyro cabinet, Britson Opus OEM38, Saville Series IV Opus 209, Steinway AR Duo-Art, Mills Violano Virtuoso with MIDI, Moller Artiste organ roll player
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  4. #4
    f Forte michaelhoddy's Avatar
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    Jan 2010

    I think the implied idea that all pipe organs are magnificent treasures worthy of the investment of large amounts of limited resources for restoration overlooks the fact that may pipe organs in American churches are actually quite mediocre being either small and highly compromised, tonally outdated in a way that makes them not worth restoration except for few ranks or parts, or mechanically deficient.

    Another frequent story, at least around the area I live in, is the 1920's organ (of which there were many) that was "modernized" in the 1960's or 70's by a local builder who put in a bunch of Stinkens unnicked pipework, lowered the pressures, and did a hack job with the electrical and action components.

    There are of course the few musical treasures that simply fell on hard times, lack of priority, lack of maintenance resources, or a declining or closing church. These are the ones you hear stories about, but this does not describe most failing pipe organs in churches.

    The pipe organ in my mother-in-law's church is a perfect example. It was a two-chamber electropneumatic installation from the 1950's, updated in the 1970's, by a regional builder. It is a typical two-manual of around 15 ranks. The mechanics and basic quality are not bad, but the organ is utterly unremarkable tonally- I played it for several services about 15 years ago before it became unplayable. The Great chest fell victim to a roof leak a few years ago, making the organ unplayable.

    The church of course lacks the resources to dedicate to even a repair project, but even if they had resources, undertaking a six-figure rebuilding project would still only yield them a smallish mediocre organ that is under-scaled for the room and buried in chambers. Even a halfway decent electronic of recent vintage installed and voiced reasonably well would be a FAR better musical and stewardship decision for the church, cost far less, and last at least as long as a much more expensive rebuilding effort.

    This is, I believe, a typical example of the "average" church pipe organ. Of course, there are the long-silent untouched hidden gems, but those are the exception, not the rule.

  5. #5
    Moderator jbird604's Avatar
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    Sep 2006
    Arkansas, USA

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    I'll chime in and pretty much agree with the preceding two posts. I wish it weren't so, but all pipe organs are not created equal, and not all are worthy of our admiration or a church's funds to maintain.

    Of course we've been down this road before, but an organ that gets the job done beats one that doesn't. We all love pipes, but there is a vast difference between the magnificent, well-maintained pipe organs we see and hear in gorgeous cathedrals and the all-too-typical little cobbled-together pipe organs we see all over the place, that never amounted to much to begin with, and now suffering from untold action faults, pipes that won't stay tuned, broken-down consoles, missing pipes, ciphers, non-working combination actions, and so on. Barely playable and constantly giving the organist fits.

    Obviously nobody is in favor of replacing the Willis in St. Paul's because it costs too much to maintain. That would be an inarguable atrocity. But the church with 8 or 10 ranks of ratty old pipes, with all manner of problems that render it highly unmusical -- a good argument can be made for a well-chosen digital upgrade.

    My own church faced this issue long before my time. There was an organ of about 12 ranks that had been the pride and joy of a dear lady who presided over it and the choir for several decades in the church's heyday. But in 1968 the church had relocated and brought the organ with them, unwisely placing the pipes in a sort of lean-to high up at the rear of the nave, with the console and choir on the chancel. I never heard it played, but I'd assume that the location was a problem from the start, with the pipes 40 or 50 feet away from the organist and the singers (though the congregation got an earful of course).

    Over time, the pipe chamber, which literally hangs off the back of the sanctuary and sits on top of the narthex roof, proved to be unwise for other reasons. It got really hot in there in the summer and really cold in the winter. The roof leaked. It was difficult to reach for servicing, as you had to go up a ladder and enter the chamber through a door on its side. So the organ really went downhill. It was hard to keep in tune with the wild temperature fluctuations, and wood, leather, rubber, and felt must have suffered sorely as well.

    And to be honest it wasn't that great an organ to begin with. From the descriptions I've seen, it was one of those early 20th century creations with a lot of tubby 8' tone and not much upperwork. No doubt a person could make music on it, at least a certain kind of music, but it wasn't the all-purpose flexible American classic organ that most of us enjoy hearing and playing so much.

    Anyway, by the late 80's it was in terrible shape. The lady who had loved it so much had passed on, and a new and highly-qualified organist was now playing it. He was less crazy about it and less willing to tolerate its growing number of quirks. At some point, he asked the church to have it renovated. The estimate to bring the organ back up to decent standards was far more money than the church was willing to spend, and even if they'd rebuilt it, there would still have been the problem of where the pipes were located. It was decision time.

    The organist did some research and shopping, and recommended a Galanti Praeludium II augmented with Carver amps and Walker tone cabinets, which could easily be placed in the small chambers flanking the chancel. I think they paid around $25K for this setup, and evidently nearly everyone was delighted with the new organ, amazed at the variety of tone and brilliance they'd never experienced before. And I'm sure the location was much more beneficial to the choir. I'm just glad someone dealt with the situation long before I came to the church!

    Another church in this area has recently made a similar decision, though their situation was not so cut-and-dried. A rather good organ built by a well-known firm had served the church for decades. The pitman-style chests deteriorated badly in recent years, causing dead notes to appear all over the place. It finally got to the point that only a few stops could be used. A new young exuberant and open-minded organist came on the scene and the church knew they needed to do something. An estimate to repair the chests went far beyond the church's ability to spend, especially after their aging facility required a very expensive renovation due to water infiltration. The new organist located an Allen MDS-85 (with 30+ speaker cabinets) that wasn't being used and the church approved its purchase. After paying a token amount for the organ and getting it delivered, they have well under $20K invested in a digital that would've cost $200K new. They went from a severely crippled pipe organ to a truly magnificent digital without the agony of a year-long rebuild costing ten times as much money.

    Of course in that situation, had the new organist not located a suitable used Allen, and had the church wanted to get a NEW digital to replace the pipes, there would not have been the vast cost difference. In fact, if they'd been looking at a new top of the line Allen, it would've been cheaper to repair the pipe organ.

    You really can't say that one size fits all, that a solution that works for one church would work for another. It depends very much on the quality of the pipe organ in question, the condition of the church's facility and their willingness to control the climate approrpiately, how much money they can reasonably raise and spend on the organ.
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    Shop: Bunch of organs in varying conditions, some good, some not...
    Half of an incredible two-man organ service team -- servicing all the major digitals in Arkansas churches

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