In the Wind. . .

February 27, 2020

Organs and boats (There he goes again.)

Mystic, Connecticut, is a fun destination for people like me with a love for saltwater sailing. The area was originally home to the Native American Pequot people, was settled by British colonists around 1640, and was one of the first ports in New England. It is now home to the Mystic Seaport Museum, which has a vast range of exhibits about the history of sailing in the region. The museum includes a large and comprehensive working wooden boat shop where many important historic vessels have been restored.

Ours is a catboat, one of a class of broad-beamed boats developed for nineteenth-century fishermen in New England, handy enough to sail alone with a large, single sail, stable in choppy water, with plenty of capacity for a large catch. Since Kingfisher entered our lives, we have been members of the Catboat Association with some 2,500 other catboaters. The membership is listed twice in the club’s directory, once alphabetically by last name, and once by the name of the boat.

Each January, the Catboat Association holds a three-day meeting in a large convention hotel a few miles away, and we have had several fascinating dedicated tours of the museum. A highlight of one of those visits was a private tour of the Charles W. Morgan, the last wooden whaling ship in existence, undergoing restoration at the time. She was built in 1841, is 107 feet long, nearly thirty feet wide, and was launched after restoration in 2013. During the summer of 2014, she was sailed by a specially chosen crew on a tour of thirty-eight New England ports and is now on permanent exhibit in Mystic.

The director of the restoration was our guide, taking a couple hours out of his hard workday. He showed us how they steamed fifteen- and twenty-foot-long, six-inch-thick oak planks and bent them to fit the compound curves of the ship’s sides, fastening them with heavy handmade wood nails and caulking the seams with tar-soaked hemp. He also shared a remarkable story of the unique problems of material supply in that specialized authentic field.

A main central beam supporting the deck along the length of the ship was rotten beyond saving, and the shipbuilders were at a loss to replace it, when they received a chance call from a contractor who was starting the construction of a large new building in the Charlestown Navy Yard in Boston. Wendy and I lived in the Navy Yard for ten years, which is also home to the USS Constitution, the oldest commissioned warship in the United States Navy, and is an interesting place to visit. When we had dinner guests whom we knew would be interested, we carried a cocktail around to the Constitution, because the ship fired the Navy’s regulation “sunset gun,” using 7:00 p.m. as the “official modified sunset” in the now residential neighborhood.

Excavation was underway at the site of the Spaulding Rehabilitation Hospital at the north end of the yard when the contractors unearthed more than a dozen huge oak beams unknown in modern times that had been preserved by being buried centuries ago by Navy shipbuilders. The contractor had the imagination and presence of mind to contact the Mystic Seaport asking if they were of any value, and the next day the seaport sent flatbed semi-trailers to collect them. We were shown the beam that had been chosen for the Charles W. Morgan. Anyone interested in historic preservation in any field such as the pipe organ would surely appreciate the fortuitous discovery.

Organ installation

It is mid-January, and I am not here to play with boats. We are spending long working days in the Church of Saint Michael the Archangel in Pawcatuck, Connecticut, a neighborhood of the town of Stonington. The organ was built by Austin Organs, Inc., in 1979 (Opus 2926), with two manuals and fifteen ranks—a modest and simple organ with a clever scheme of borrowing to create a flexible pedal division.

After the start of the second decade of this century, the people of Saint Michael’s were planning a new building, and in 2013 we were engaged to dismantle and store the Austin organ. We would install the organ in the completed new building under a separate agreement. The new building was designed by architect Brett Donham (who also designed the recent renovation of Saint Paul’s Cathedral, Boston, and Saint Paul’s Episcopal Church, Brookline, Massachusetts), who happens to be a friend of Wendy and me with a summer home just a few miles from our house in Maine.

In the new building, the organ would be installed in a free and open space on the main floor of the building, a rare instance of a new ecclesiastical building with no limitations for the placement of an organ. My organbuilder colleagues will chuckle “too good to be true,” and they would be right. Fundraising fell short, plans for the new building were scrapped, and the existing building would be stripped to its very bones and rebuilt on the same footprint. We would install the organ in the same loft from which it was removed, but—wait for it—the ceiling would be eighteen inches lower over the Swell, stealing space from the organ to allow an enhanced HVAC system.

A colleague subcontractor releathered the Austin actions for us, and we started the installation about ten days ago. Remember the “too good to be true part?” Today is Sunday, and I put the last two cables on the console junctions this afternoon. The church and the organ will be dedicated on Saturday in a two-hour ceremony led by the bishop of the diocese along with combined choirs and brass instruments. We have a busy week ahead of us. We have built a new swell box, repositioned the Swell in relation to the Great to make the most of the available space, relocated the four largest pipes (the only ones that would not fit under the new lower ceiling), and hung the chimes on the wall. We will spend the next several days setting the pipes on the chests, installing the last few appliances (fan tremolo and its electric relay, expression motor, etc.).

The birth of a new building

The finished church building is lovely. The windows and oak wainscoting are bordered with attractive and colorful stenciled patterns, the walls are painted a rich brick red, new light fixtures with fancy controls and state-of-the-art bulbs illuminate the place effectively, and an intricate system of wood trusses supports the pitched ceiling, a huge change from the tacky dropped ceiling in the original building.

The high altar and reredos are made of wood but are receiving a faux-marble painted finish by the Golubovic family. Milan Church Restoration is run by Marco Golubovic, whose family came to the United States from Serbia in the early 1990s. His parents are the artists who marbleized the altar. We have been watching them with interest as they transform the primed-white structure to stone, making mixtures of tubed colored oils and lined oil, sketching “marbly” designs in pencils, and applying the colored veins to the wood with fine artist brushes, sponges, and the occasional finger-painted streak.

The “altar system” has a special feature. The altar itself is mounted on well-concealed wheels and can be used either as a free-standing fixture with the priest facing the congregation or can be pushed against the reredos under the centered tabernacle so the priest can celebrate Mass in traditional style with his back to the congregation.

In 1979, I helped install the Flentrop organ in Trinity Cathedral in Cleveland, Ohio, where I later played several recitals, and which was the site of my first wedding. The altar and pulpit in that church are made of richly veined marble that look for all the world as though they are made of blue cheese. The artists at work this week at Saint Michael’s are good at painting blue cheese. It is reminiscent of Homer’s account of the Greek god Poseidon who turned a Phaeacian ship into stone, punishing them for aiding his enemy Odysseus.

The Stations of the Cross are molded and carved pieces about thirty inches high and twenty-four inches wide. The figures and architectural images are colorfully painted, and each piece weighs about fifty pounds. The general contractor replaced the hardware and steel wire to hang them on the walls, similar to hanging a heavy painting in your home. The wire they chose was not up to the job, and last week two of the stations fell to the floor within twelve hours of each other. Late one evening, the priest and project manager removed the remaining twelve from the wall lest they, too, should fall. Fortunately, Milan Church Restorations also specializes in the restoration of liturgical art, and they were able to repair the severe damage to the plaster pieces on short notice. A different wire was chosen, and the pieces were quickly rehung.

The new sound system was tested and calibrated last week. I am not much of a fan of public address systems, and I have heard many that distort rather than enhance the spoken word. I have often noticed that the technicians who work with those systems are very good at counting, but their range is limited: “one . . . two . . . three . . . four . . . .” It reminds me of the old vaudeville gag of a horse counting by stomping its feet. The techs were very proud to demonstrate that the microphones could handle anything they were offered. You could approach with voice meek and mild, the microphone pointing at your forehead, whimpering through a passage of scripture, or you could lean into it and thunder, fire, and brimstone. Goodness, he must have practiced that routine, and through it all, I was sitting on an upturned bucket, sorting wires at the junction in the back of the console (white with blue, blue with white, . . . violet with green, green with violet) with a PA speaker ten inches from my head. Actually, not through it all. After several minutes, I stood up, waved my arms above my head as if I was marooned on a desert island, and asked ol’ silver tongue to turn off the balcony speakers.

As we race toward completion, as the general contractor prepares to leave the building officially in a couple days, as the pastor paces around the building noting details, and as UPS delivers eight hundred new hymnals, we are aware of the sense of anticipation. They have been worshipping in a neighboring church for almost seven years, and they have missed their home parish. The pastor brings a small group of people into the building several times a day, and I have heard their exclamations, their excitement, even weeping. Some wander into the choir loft and shake their heads at the complexity of the pipe organ. Inwardly, we reflect that it is actually a very small and simple organ, but to them, who have never seen the innards of a pipe organ, it is as much a marvel as a Silbermann organ was to an eighteenth-century Alsatian vintner. It is certainly not my job to correct them, as in, “Actually, this organ is pretty simple.” It’s their organ, they’re proud of it, and they love it.

Let us remember a time when most every local, even rural church had a four-, six-, or eight-rank pipe organ that they loved and valued. M. P. Möller built over thirteen thousand organs, most of which were smaller “factory models,” as did Casavant, Reuter, Schantz, and others. While so many smaller churches purchase substitute instruments now, we celebrate those that own and cherish a real pipe organ.

My friend Jim

I have wired dozens of organs in my career. It is work I enjoy, and I draw from my experience as an organist to enhance my understanding of the complex wiring schemes. When I am sorting out cables, I can picture the musician using a particular function of the organ. I know why it is there, how it is used, why it is important, and I love hooking up those wires. (“She’s gonna use the Great to Pedal reversible a lot.”) Wendy is an avid weaver who revels in the complex patterns possible with the multiple shafts of the loom. There is a poetic similarity between weaving and organ wiring—both crafts create matrices with two axes, both rely on neatness and predictability for their beauty. (The trackers and stop actions of an organ with mechanical action also have rich parallels with weaving.)

My career started in the late 1970s, just as solid-state controls for pipe organs were becoming common. A few of the first organs I renovated and installed had electro-mechanical switching systems with phosphor-bronze contacts as developed by early twentieth-century organ building pioneers like Austin, Skinner, Casavant, and Möller, but since at least 1980, virtually every organ I have finished has included solid-state controls. The Austin organ at Saint Michael’s has analog switching—the simple relays (touch boxes) at the tail end of the keyboards in thousands of Austin organs. It is the first time in decades that I have wired an entire organ “the old-fashioned way.”

It is ironic, because my old pal Jim Mornar retired from Peterson Electro-Musical Products, Inc., at the end of 2019. Back in the 1980s when I was first working independently, I attended a couple informational seminars at the Peterson plant to enhance my understanding of their equipment. That is when I got to know Jim personally, and in the ensuing decades, with his help, I purchased dozens of systems from Peterson for rebuilding consoles and updating entire organ systems.

I have spent hundreds of hours on the phone with Jim, each call starting with casual banter and moving gradually toward the problem at hand. Often, it was “my bad.” “Did you connect the ground?” “Yes, of course, . . . oooh, . . . maybe not, . . . never mind.” Sometimes it was a serious puzzle. I would describe a problem in excruciating detail and could picture Jim’s hand rubbing his chin as if I was nuts. “That can’t be.” “It is.”

When placing a call to Peterson (answered by Marlene or Karyn) I would ask for Uncle Jim. (He is just a couple years older than I am.) They often told me he was on the phone. He would call back an hour later, just to get on a fifty- or sixty-minute call with me. I suppose his job was to talk on the phone, but I know he designed and built the systems I ordered.

There are hundreds of organists who have no idea how important Jim Mornar was to the effectiveness and reliability of the instruments they play. (Pay no attention to that man behind the curtain.) Nice work, Jim. You are the best.

Going out in flames

I mentioned Saint Paul’s Episcopal Church in Brookline, Massachusetts, which was recreated by architect Brett Donham after a significant fire in the 1980s. It is home to an organ built by George Bozeman & Company of Deerfield, New Hampshire, affectionately known by the Bozeman workshop as Orgelbrookline. I worked for George during the summers of 1975 and 1976, my first experience in an organ workshop. Early in the summer of 1976, we all participated in moving the shop to Deerfield from Lowell, Massachusetts.

When I was a young teenager, I sang in the choir of my home church with George’s wife, Pat, and together they were important mentors to me, introducing me to the world of the pipe organ, especially as it flourished in the heady days of the “tracker revival” in Boston in the late 1960s and early 1970s. I will always be grateful for the care and attention they offered a young organ geek.

George retired, the company closed, and he continued to live in a cottage behind the main house on the property whose barn was the workshop, until recently when he offered the whole place for sale and moved to a retirement community. The Organ Clearing House had used the workshop for storage and a few small projects, and we removed our material in advance of the closing. The electricity had been shut off for quite a while as the building was barely being used. A few days after the closing, the new owner turned on the main switch and was checking some electrical circuits when there were sparks, and within a few minutes the building was engulfed with flames.

It was no longer George’s building and it was no longer an organ workshop, but it sure was sad to see it go down. The historic home of a creative company was lost.

Rites of passage. Thank you, George. Thank you, Jim.