Few people think about what happens to a church after it closes for good. Some are transformed into trendy cafes; others, converted into art galleries; and some completely demolished to make way for luxury apartments.
Before the era of electronic music, if you walked through a church, hidden deep within its chambers, you could find a pipe organ worth hundreds of thousands of dollars.
When Dr Carl Dodrill saw churches in Seattle demolished and beloved pipe organs thrown with them, it motivated him to create the Pipe organ foundation. The aim of the association is to save pipe organs destined for the trash. Twenty years after its founding, the core organization still operates out of Dodrill’s tiny workshop on Mercer Island, which is full of salvaged organ pipes, loose cables, and keyboard consoles. Dodrill’s foundation is entirely volunteer-driven, drawing on a variety of skill sets, including craft carpenters and people with technical backgrounds from Microsoft.
“All you have to do is look at downtown Seattle and you can see where the big churches used to be, and they’re not there. Instead, we have a 40 story high rise building on this site, ”Dodrill said.
Dodrill said a person doesn’t have to look far to see the narrowing landscape of the pipe organ. Seattle’s first Presbyterian, less than a block from City Hall, is the one Dodrill watches over. He sees that he’s being sold to a real estate developer, and he’s determined to save his organ. “A hundred years ago, almost all of these churches had a pipe organ,” Dodrill explained.
Roosevelt High School, Mercer Island Presbyterian Church, Issaquah Covenant Presbyterian Church, and Northlake Lutheran Church in Kenmore are just a few of the many places where the foundation has repaired or installed an organ.
There are many reasons for the decline of pipe organs. Organs are expensive, both to repair and to buy. A new organ can cost up to $ 500,000, forcing many churches or people to abandon the instrument if it breaks down and turn to cheaper alternatives like electronic pianos or recorded music.
The initial design of an organ, the construction of the parts and the assembly of all the parts can take thousands of hours of work. In Washington state, Dodrill knows only two organ shops that build from scratch and three repair shops.
If Dodrill can’t repair an organ, he scraps it and uses it to build a new organ. “What we need to do is create the organ so that it has the right voice for this congregation,” Dodrill said. “Usually I go to their services… so it’s tailor-made for them. No organ is the same. The liturgy of the service will influence the organ voice made by the Dodrill team.
Currently, the Pipe Organ Foundation is working on an organ to be played inside Faith Lutheran Church in Seattle. The organ will be customized to play classical music and the sound will complement composers such as Bach, Mendelssohn or Mozart. A unique feature of this organ is that its pipes will be grouped together to mimic the sound of a cello or violin.
“What it does is it gives a very interesting textual flavor to the sound,” Dodrill said. “It’s warm, it’s inviting. And that’s the kind of thing that this particular congregation, I think, really enjoys when they come in and sit down. They want to be warmly invited.
The Pipe Organ Foundation operates on a donation basis and will normally charge a tenth of the cost of a pipe organ repair. In the case of Faith Lutheran, the estimated total cost of the project is $ 120,000 to $ 150,000. Fortunately, the church has already reached its fundraising goal of $ 50,000 for the organ and is on track for installation by 2022.
Faith Lutheran’s Pastor Shannyn Fuerst said her congregation had gone completely virtual, and while Zoom kept its members connected, it also showed the importance of live worship.
“Just as everyone has different personalities and preferences, the same will be true of worship,” Fuerst said. “Some people worship much more deeply through music and sound. Some people worship by movement, and others worship better by smell or sight.
Fuerst is convinced that there will be no tendency to stray from live worship and when she is sure she expects to see her sanctuary filled with a vibrant congregation. Fuerst said his parishioners look forward to the day when they can all be together, worship and listen to their new organ.
No one will be more excited about this day than David Buice, Faith Lutheran’s organist, who has been performing professionally for over 50 years. As a child, Buice would sit on the organists bench and watch them play.
Pressurized air rushes through pipes of varying lengths, creating melodies that surround everyone gathered – to engage silently as soon as a finger is lifted from a key. The twisting knobs, feet tapping the pedals, and staring eyes at the scores captivated young Buice. It was these early experiences that led Buice to pursue a career as an organist and later study it professionally at the University of Alabama at Tuscaloosa.
What Buice loves most about an organ is the fact that it has a lively and rich sound when played, as opposed to recorded music, which to many sounds dead and barren.
“Some pipes on a pipe organ, you actually feel more than you hear,” Buice said. “As you play, the sound gradually fills the room and builds up. … You get a more immersive experience with a pipe organ than with any other type of instrument.
Before the Industrial Revolution, the pipe organ was considered the most complex mechanical musical instrument.
Buice plays a practice organ to Faith Lutheran, which has nine rows of organ pipes; a “row” is a group of the same type of pipes. The Pipe Organ Foundation provides the church with an organ that will be 3.5 times the size of the training organ and have 21 rows: six rows of tuning forks, four rows of flute, four rows of strings, four rows of reeds and a mix of three rows.
According to the American Guild of Organists, the number of young people choosing to play the organ is declining. In one 2015 survey, the organization found that 60% of its 16,000 members were aged 54 or over; only 11% were millennials, meaning 11% were under 40 at the time.
According to the report, it is predicted that over the next two decades, once the baby boomer population retires or dies, there will be a shortage of qualified organists to be hired by institutions. In the relevant news, this would be a good time for interested organists to start a career.
Although registrations for organ pipe programs are low across the country, Buice is still optimistic about his future. “The fact that a kid can sit in front of these keyboards and match what he hears with what he sees… I think there might be a future organist here,” Buice said.
Read more from the December 2-8, 2020 issue.