Pipe organ a work in progress for Presbyterian church
Back in the early 1980s the Session of Elders at Lake Tahoe Community Presbyterian Church voted to replace their failing electronic organ. They debated about whether to purchase a new electronic one, or a pipe organ. They chose the pipe organ. That decision charted their course, but if anyone expected smooth sailing, they were mistaken.
With the help of local resident Al Delisle, a committee made up of Anne Johnson, Jon Hoefer and Dr. Greg Bergner found a Wurlitzer organ. It had been built in 1924 specifically as a church instrument, although it had been installed in a variety of locations before arriving at South Lake Tahoe in 1981.
The organ was in pieces when purchased for $7,500. The church hoped it could be installed and made playable without costing the congregation two or three times the purchase price, but that was not the case.
Five years later, in 1986, the first notes were played at worship by church organist Pam Grant. Five of the desired seven ranks were functioning. The sixth rank, the Dulciana pipes, had been installed but was not in service, yet.
Then a call went out to add a seventh rank of pipes, the Trumpet.
That call wasn’t answered for nearly 20 years. For those not initiated in the intricacies of pipe organs, there’s a lot to take in.
John Harbison, an elder at Lake Tahoe Community Church, explains, “It wasn’t possible to go out and buy a brand new set of Trumpet pipes and put them in place, because the old ones were made out of a specific alloy that expands and contracts at a certain rate. If you bought new pipes, they’d be made of a different metal and you could tune the whole organ, but when the temperature changed one degree, the Trumpets would go out of tune with the rest of the organ.”
Robert Miller, who came on board as organ tech in 1990, and has worked tirelessly to restore the organ in a manner he believes Rudolf Wurlitzer himself would approve of, found the 80-something-year-old pipes in Seattle.
If it’s beginning to sound as if the organ restoration was finally going smoothly, it wasn’t. Miller tried but couldn’t get the organ in tune.
Each of the Seattle 1920s Wurlitzer Trumpet pipes had a brass reed in it that vibrated and made the correct sound – at sea level. The Tahoe church had the right 1920s Wurlitzer Trumpet pipes but they needed brass reeds that would vibrate and make the correct sound – at 6,200 feet.
Miller checked with various organ companies and a network of other organ techs across the country to see if any one had a box of high altitude reeds collecting dust on a back shelf somewhere. A set was located.
Does the word “miracle” come to mind?
With the seventh and final rank for the church organ now functional, the congregation at Lake Tahoe Community Presbyterian Church heard the Trumpets for the first time last Thanksgiving.
Also along the way, other modifications to the organ had to be made. Pipes too big to fit in the space available at the church were taken to Schoenstein and Co. in San Francisco, reshaped and retuned. A solid-state panel replaced the older pneumatic relay system for the organ. Countless bellow valves have been tediously releathered by hand, the supple paper-thin leather secured by animal glue, the formula for which Miller describes as “thousands of years old.”
Everyone is very pleased with the way the organ is performing. Miller, who is based in Virginia City and gets calls to work on organs in a five-state radius, describes the church’s Wurlitzer as a Rolls Royce. Harbison describes the pay off for all the years of effort and patience when he contrasts the sound of an electronic organ with the depth, fullness, and richness of the church’s pipe organ. “It would be like comparing an off-the-shelf violin to a Stradivarius.”
Other church members who have had important roles in securing the pipe organ for the church include Linne (Nels) and Adelea Nelson and Bruce Cook.
There are two things being considered for the future, other than routine maintenance. One is possibly getting a new smaller, more efficient motor and fan for the organ, and the second is adding combination pre-sets to the console. That would allow the organist to play a combination of pipes without having to stop and change several tabs.
Dr. Steven Blocher, pastor of the Presbyterian Church said, “In our day, you just don’t hear of many churches going to the expense and effort of installing a true pipe organ and as hard as it is to secure good piano accompanists, it’s harder still to find competent organists. I am thankful to have someone with the patience, skill, and love of music like Pam Grant to make this instrument a real asset to our congregational praise and worship.
“I love to introduce good contemporary songs into our worship, but I believe there is and will always be a place for the great traditional hymns of the church, and there’s nothing like a pipe organ to accompany them.
“To recognize the completion of the organ and honor all who have given of time, talent and treasure, our 8:30 and 11 a.m. worship services on Oct. 14 will be a service of organ music and hymns. The morning of music will feature organists Pam Grant, Louise Ann Simon and Robert Miller, and is open to the community.”
“We are embarking on a fundraising campaign to raise the money needed to purchase and install the organ presets. We invite all who appreciate excellent instrumental music to join us in this project, Blocher said.”