In the wind . . .

January 18, 2013

What’s it worth?

When my kids were growing up, we were active in a small inland sailing club that ran weekly races from April to October. My son Michael was part of a group of five boys of the same age who were great competitors—one of them went on to race and win in the Olympics—and the five fathers had a blast supporting the boys as they competed in regattas in the fabled yacht clubs up and down the Massachusetts coast.  

Our club was a modest place—annual membership was less than five hundred dollars, and even when I had been elected commodore, I was not immune from the regular chore of cleaning up after the geese that occupied the docks whenever we were not on the premises. Many of the clubs we visited for races were rich and formal affairs, with stewards in uniform, and clubhouses with catering kitchens that could handle high-society wedding receptions. One breezy afternoon, my sailing-dad buddies and I were sitting in a boat in Marblehead Harbor doing duty on the safety committee, seaward of the mooring area that is home to some of the most beautiful pleasure boats in the area, and I commented that there must be a half-billion dollars tied to those moorings.

It seems as though we are preoccupied with the value of things. “That purse must have cost a thousand bucks.” “He has a million-dollar house and a hundred-thousand-dollar car.” “That organ cost forty-grand a stop.”

The other day I received a call from someone at a wrecking company in a big midwestern city. His company was about to demolish a church building and the diocese wanted bids for dismantling and preserving the organ, a 25-stop instrument built in the 1890s. He assured me that the organ was “one of the 20 best in the country, worth at least a half-million dollars.” I didn’t want the conversation to end prematurely so I kept my thoughts to myself. It would certainly cost a half-million dollars to build the same organ today, but the actual cash value is more like $25,000. It’s worth what someone would pay for it.

When you reflect on the thousands of hours it takes craftsmen to build a fine organ, and the tons of expensive materials involved, it’s hard to accept that an organ would be worth so little, but at the risk of over-simplifying, there are two basic reasons: the high cost of renovating and relocating a pipe organ, and the huge number of redundant organs available around the United States and abroad.


You must remember this . . . 

Yesterday there was an auction at Sotheby’s in New York and a funny-looking piece of movie-prop memorabilia sold for $500,000—plus $102,000 in commissions. It’s a good thing it was a black-and-white movie, because I doubt the sickly green-and-yellow paint job would have added to the poignancy of the moment. As a musical instrument, the Casablanca piano is hardly more than a ruse. It has only fifty notes; it’s barely the height of a cheap spinet. A short video on the website of the New York Times showed artists playing it in an opulent room at Sotheby’s—it looked a little like an adult riding a tricycle. And in the famous scene with Humphrey Bogart and Ingrid Bergman (listening to “As Time Goes By”), the guy at the piano wasn’t even really playing. Dooley Wilson, who played Sam, was a drummer, crooning to the accompaniment of an offstage instrument while he pretended to play. Of course, the scene wouldn’t have worked if it were a full-size upright (like the one off which Lauren Bacall dangled her famous gams in front of Harry Truman1) because the actors would have been hidden behind it.

I understand that the handsome price paid for the piano was not based on its artistic value. But in a world in which a cheap toy instrument would claim such a grand sum, and a magnificent pipe organ would be pretty much worthless, how do we assess and justify the value of a pipe organ?


How much per stop?

Think of a prospective home buyer calling a realtor and asking how much does an eight-room house cost? The realtor responds with a list of variables: how many acres of land, how many fireplaces, is there a swimming pool, central air, master bedroom suite, water view, three-car heated garage . . .? These are all basic questions that would have a big effect on the value of an otherwise simply described house. And we haven’t touched questions like new kitchen, Jacuzzi, great room with cathedral ceilings, or theater seats with cup-holders.

Asking an organbuilder “how much per stop” is equally meaningless. For fun, let’s think about an organ with three manuals and 60 stops. It might be located in a chamber with a simple façade of zinc pipes sprayed with gold paint. Compare it to what must be the most famous visual image of a pipe organ, the one built by Christian Müller in the St. Bavokerk in Haarlem, the Netherlands—you know, the one with the lions on top. (It actually has 62 stops, no borrows!) Imagine what it would cost to build that case today. Two million bucks, three million? I have no idea. But let’s say it would be two and a half million, and divide that by the number of stops. The case alone would cost $40,322.58 per stop. And we haven’t made a single tracker. Add forty grand per stop for the organ itself and we’re over eighty. Woot!2

It’s common to hear people in pipe organ circles talking about how a new organ cost “so much” per stop. It’s typically a prominent instrument in a central church or concert hall where the price of the organ has been publicized—or leaked. When the local newspaper publishes the “three-point-five” price tag of the organ, the smart organist looks at the specifications, does the math, and comes up with “so much” per stop.

I think that it’s counterproductive, even destructive, to refer to the cost of an organ as “so much” per stop. If an organist mentions at church that the organ in Symphony Hall cost fifty-grand per stop, the church looks at its 20-stop organ as a million-dollar asset, and worse, vows never to consider acquiring a new pipe organ. They fail to realize that the simple organ in their church would cost a fraction as much to replace.


Get real.

There are many factors that contribute to the price of an organ in the same way that a sunken living room affects the value of a house. Let’s consider a few of them.

There are plenty of organs out there that don’t have “swell boxes,” so we should consider the independent cost of building one. (We almost always call them swell boxes, even if they actually enclose a Choir, Positiv, Solo, or Echo division. “Expression enclosure” is a more accurate term.) A free-standing expression enclosure in an organ chamber might be something like a 10- or 12-foot cube of heavy hardwood construction. There’s a bank of shutters, carefully built and balanced, that are operated by a sophisticated motor. Consider the challenge of building a machine that can operate a thousand pounds of venetian blinds in the blink of an eye, silently. A well-designed and built expression enclosure might add $50,000 to the cost of an organ. And some organs have three or four of them.

When you’re counting stops on a published list, they all take up the same amount of space. But in reality, you can house hundreds of 61-note Tierces in the space it takes to mount a single octave of 16 pipes. (The largest pipe in a Tierce is not much bigger than a paper towel tube.) Think of a 20-stop organ with a Pedal division that’s based on a 16 Subbass, then add a 16 Principal as the twenty-first stop. That one extra stop doubles the size of the organ’s case, increases the organ’s wind requirements by 40 or 50 percent, and increases the scope of the instrument in just about every way. Maybe that one stop increases the price of the organ by $100,000, or even $200,000, which then is divided over the total number of stops to achieve the fabled “so much” per stop.

Take it a step further and think of a 32-footer. A 32 Double Open Diapason made of wood is worth a quarter of a million dollars when you combine the cost of pipes, windchests, racks and supports, and wind supply. The twelve largest pipes fill a large portion of a semi-trailer, and the cost of shipping, hoisting and rigging, and just plain lugging is hard to calculate. One large pipe might weigh a half-ton or more. Stops like this are relatively rare because they’re so expensive and they take up so much space—but most of the big concert hall organs have them. So that impressive “so much” per stop you read about in the paper includes dividing the cost of Big Bertha the Diapason across the rest of the stops. The price of the Tierce went up by ten grand.

When the Organ Clearing House is preparing to dismantle a pipe organ, we arrange for scaffolding and hoisting equipment, packing materials, truck transportation, and we figure the number of pipe trays we’ll need. We build trays that are eight-feet by two-feet and eight-inches deep. We usually figure one-and-three-quarter trays per real stop, which allows enough space to pack the pipes, small parts, shutters, and the odds-and-ends we call “chowder.” That figure works for lots of organs. A four- or five-rank Mixture fits in one tray, an 8 string fits in one or two trays (low EE of an 8 stop fits in the eight-trays), and an 8 Principal fits in two or three trays. Most organs can be packed in seventy or eighty trays—the lumber for that many trays costs around $3,000.  

Sometimes we’re fooled. A smallish two-manual tracker organ built in the seventies might have a 16 Bourdon and a Brustwerk division with five or six stops no larger than a skinny 8 Gedeckt. The entire Brustwerk division can be packed in two or three trays. Compare that to the mighty M.P. Möller organ, Opus 5819, built for the Philadelphia Convention Center, and now owned by the University of Oklahoma. There are four 8 Diapasons in the Great, all of large scale. We used 14 trays to pack those four stops. That organ ruined the curve—89 ranks packed in nearly 400 trays. Which organ was more expensive to build “per stop?”


Not responsible for valuables

Park your car at the airport or check a coat at a restaurant and you’ll read a disclaimer saying that management is not responsible for valuables. Each time we add a gadget to our daily kit, the importance of the disclaimer advances. We cringe when our car gets hit by a careless shopper parked in the next space, and we’re annoyed when a departing guest leaves a rut in the lawn. But we often fail to realize and respect the value of the organ in the church. Hardwood cases get beat up by folding chairs and organ chambers get used as closets. Façade pipes get dinged by ladders while people hang Christmas wreaths on the case, and we sweep the basement floor while the blower is running, wafting clouds of debris into the organ’s delicate actions.

There are two principal reasons for assessing the value of an organ. One is for the unfortunate moment when it must leave the building, and is being offered for sale, and the other is when an insurance policy is being established or updated. A third and less usual reason is when an organ is privately owned and is being considered as a donation to a not-for-profit institution.

If the organ is being offered for sale, especially when it has to be offered for sale, the value is defined simply by what someone would pay for it. And the closer the church building gets to demolition or a real estate closing, the lower the value of the organ. It’s usual for large and wonderful organs to sell for less than $50,000. In fact, it’s unusual for any existing pipe organ to sell for more than $50,000. Recently we organized the sale of a large three-manual tracker organ built in the 1970s—a wonderful instrument whose installation was a momentous occasion—but the price for the entire instrument was equal to the hypothetical cost of one stop in a new large organ.

You might think that a lovely 150-year-old organ by E. & G.G. Hook is priceless—but put it up for sale and you’ll find that it will claim twenty grand, far less than the price of a good piano, and a tiny fraction of the supposed value of a tinker-toy movie prop painted kindergarten green!

The most important reason for assessing the value of a pipe organ is for the purpose of determining appropriate insurance coverage. The instrument is worth the most to the congregation that is actively using and striving to care well for its organ. In 1991, Hurricane Bob raced up the East Coast, pushed a 15-foot storm surge into Buzzards Bay at the southern end of the Cape Cod Canal, and drenched eastern Massachusetts with six inches of rain along with heavy winds. The slate roof over the organ chamber in a church in suburban Boston was compromised and the nice little E.M. Skinner organ got wet. The insurance coverage was based on the original price of the organ, purchased more than 60 years earlier. The damage to the organ was moderate—limited to one end of a manual windchest and a couple offset chests, but when the cost of repairs was pro-rated against the insurance policy, the settlement offered would have covered the cost of a tuning.

If the real and current cost of replacement of a pipe organ is reflected in the insurance policy, not only will the organ be covered in the case of complete loss, but also the cost of repairing partial damage caused by fire, flood, vandalism, or even rodents would be covered. A thorough organ maintenance technician should regularly remind his clients of the importance of being sure that the organ is properly covered by insurance.

Just weeks ago, Hurricane Sandy brought terrific destruction to New England, especially New York City and the surrounding urban area in New Jersey and Connecticut. A few blocks from Grand Central Station, a section of the stone cornice of a thirty-story apartment building broke loose and plummeted through the roof of the church next door. The hole in the roof was right above the organ, while the trajectory meant that most of the rubble hit the floor in front of the organ. The stones caused minor damage to the organ, but it sure was raining hard. Hope the policy was up to date.



1. Before using the word gam, I checked the dictionary: “a leg, especially in reference to a woman’s shapely leg.” It’s derived from the Old French gambe, which means “leg.” Guess that’s how the Viola da Gamba got its name. Could we call the Rockettes a “Consort of Gambas?” 

2. I looked this one up too. I’ve often seen the word woot used on Facebook and assumed it means something like “woo-hoo.” agrees, but adds that it’s also a truncation of “Wow, loot,” in the video-game community.

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