Restored pipe organ has uplifting sound Print E-mail
Around the Diocese
Written by Dick Jones, For the Catholic Herald   
Thursday, Dec. 14, 2017 -- 12:00 AM

new pipe organ
Bruce Case is proud of the Aeolian-Skinner pipe organ with 1,173 pipes he restored for the chapel at Holy Name Heights in Madison. (Dick Jones photo)

MADISON -- Enter the quiet chapel at Holy Name Heights, walk down the aisle, then turn and look to the balcony. The pews are gone, and an organ console is visible. That’s different. Otherwise, not much to see, nothing all that remarkable.

Yet, there is now something truly noteworthy in the choir loft. Behind a wall of organ swell shades are the pipes and inner workings of a superb instrument, an Aeolian-Skinner pipe organ, old and used, but newly restored and installed in the chapel.

And when an organist sits at the keyboard and begins to play the rebuilt organ, what an uplifting sound!

Mellow, lyrical, orchestral, its sound is unlike that of any other pipe organ in the area, most notably the one so visible in Overture Center Hall, according to Bruce Case, owner of Case Organ Company in Verona.

For more than 40 years, Case has been building, restoring, and maintaining pipe organs. He has worked on the Overture Center organ, and he led the team that just installed the pipe organ at Holy Name Heights.

“Don’t belittle the Overture organ,” Case is quick to admonish. Both are extraordinary instruments with very different styles, he said in an interview. What distinguishes the Holy Name Heights organ are sets of pipes that can sound like strings, an oboe, or trumpet, all more suited to accompanying a choir.

“All of those just make a rich underlayment of sound that works so good for choral music and just singing hymns,” Case said. “It’s a great accompanying instrument, really great!”

Dream come true

It’s a dream come true for Dr. Patrick Gorman, director of the Madison Diocesan Choir. Now in his 26th year as director, he has been working all the while to replace an obsolete electric organ.

When Holy Name Seminary was constructed 1964, plans called for a pipe organ. The balcony was built strong enough to house one (Case estimates this one weighs five and a half tons). But back then, the Diocese of Madison couldn’t afford the expense. Now, thanks to a gift from the estate of the late Msgr. Delbert LeRoy Schmelzer, the chapel has one of the best.

And best of all, this Sunday, Dec. 17, the public can attend at no charge the choir’s Advent & Christmas Lessons & Carols service, with Gorman directing and Glenn Schuster, assistant director and accompanist, at the keyboard.

The service begins at 4 p.m.. While admission is free, guests are urged to bring a non-perishable food item as a donation to the Catholic Multicultural Center food pantry.

A second performance is set for 4 p.m. on Saturday, Jan. 6, in celebration of the Epiphany in the Holy Name Heights chapel, located at 702 S. High Point Rd., Madison. The former Bishop O’Connor Catholic Pastoral Center is handicap accessible. The second performance also is free, but for those who wish to contribute, the choir appreciates a free will offering in support of its music ministry.

Telling the organ’s story

If the pipes of this organ could talk, they would tell an incredible story of an organ that almost wasn’t built. After years of service, it fell silent. Abandoned and forgotten, it was later discovered by happenstance, rescued, and restored to life. Now it is ready to accompany the faithful in hymns of praise once again.

Fortunately, Case can speak for the pipes and tell the story, having reviewed a voluminous file on the organ, one the First Congregational Church in Kenosha ordered from the Aeolian- Skinner Organ Company in 1949. The Boston company didn’t deliver it until 1953. The delay was due largely to the Korean War.

“There was a horrible shortage of workers skilled in making particularly the pipes,” Case said. “The woodworking wasn’t so bad, it was metal pipe making that was a challenge. So that was a very long delivery, four years. Normally it’s 18 months.”

Leaders of the affluent congregation nearly canceled the order, but a Snap-On Tools executive and member, R.L. Grover, urged patience. He intervened on their behalf, and the organ ultimately was delivered at a cost of nearly $22,300. The church had nearly 1,500 members, but membership steadily declined. In 2013, the church was closed and sold to an evangelical congregation that had no use for the pipe organ.

Searching for an organ

Meanwhile, a pipe organ in the chapel remained high on Gorman’s list. The Rodgers electronic organ, although considered the best available when the seminary was built, proved increasingly unreliable. Gorman enlisted Case’s help.

The cost of a new pipe organ was prohibitive. Case recommended buying and rebuilding a used one, an Aeolian-Skinner for liturgical services and choir accompaniment. Their search began in earnest over a year ago and took them first to a Skinner organ, as Case calls them, in a Rockford, Ill., church.

“Pat heard me play it, and he loved the sound,” Case said. “He said, ‘Oh, that’s just going to be magic for the choir’.”

Although the organ wasn’t quite the right size, Case bought it and planned to add pipes while restoring it in his shop. Still, he kept searching the Organ Historical Society site with a database showing Aeolian-Skinner OPUS numbers, essentially their production numbers, dates, stops, and last known location.

He soon found one just the right size in Kenosha and called the church to ask if they still had it.

“The secretary said, ‘I think we do. I’m not sure. We don’t use it,’ so I talked to the pastor,” Case said. The pastor said yes, but he had never heard it. Case arrived at the church to find the console virtually obscured by audio visual equipment.

“We opened it up, turned it on, and it started fine,” Case said. “It was almost in perfect tune. I played a piece for them, and the secretary was almost crying.”

On closer inspection, Case found some water damage, but nothing major. He arranged to buy it on the spot, and on January 11, arrived with a crew to dismantle the organ and haul all the parts back to Verona.

“We filled multiple trucks, almost a semi load,” he said.

Rebuilding the organ

Case partnered with the Spencer Organ Company, a Boston firm with expertise in restoring Aeolian-Skinner organs, and together, they began the meticulous work of rebuilding the organ in his shop.

“Every piece got examined,” he said. “There’s a lot of replacement work, especially in terms of the leather. There are 1,173 pipes in this organ. Every pipe has a valve control system consisting

of either two or three moving parts in the chest mechanism that sits underneath the pipe itself and admits wind under control of the organist. Typically this valve system is composed of leather parts and electrical magnets. The reservoir is the big bellows for the organ, and those all get re-leathered.”

About three quarters of the pipes are metal, primarily a combination of tin and lead in different proportions, and zinc for bass pipes.

“By changing the amount of tin in a pipe, you can vary how bright it is,” he said. “So if you want a flute, you mostly use lead. But if you want it to be bright and sparkly, you mostly use tin. In the bass part, where the metal pipes are over four feet long, we transition to zinc,” said Case.

The remaining pipes were made of wood no longer available, clear California sugar pine, ideal for big bass pipes, because the wood is free of knots and light compared to heavier oak.

“All the pipes were stripped of their old finish,” Case said. “We make the metal pipes round again. Often they get deformed over the years from people beating on them. So we re-round them, we re-lacquer them. We refinished the wood pipes, too.”

A perfect fit

Case said the organ’s shortest pipe, a metal pipe, measures three quarters of an inch; and the longest, a wood pipe, eight feet. In some case, the longer pipes had to be set at an angle to fit in the space available behind the swell shutters.

“It was a challenge,” he said. “We couldn’t be an ounce bigger. We had no extra room. It took a lot of engineering, but we made it. It’s actually a good fit.”

Better than good -- perfect.

“The placement of the organ is absolutely ideal,” he said. “The best location for an organ is high against the ceiling, and the ideal ceiling is a barrel vaulted ceiling, which is exactly what you have in the chapel. That just grabs the sound of that organ as it travels out in that vaulting. This organ sounds bigger in the room than it does in the balcony.

“Perfect placement. I wish I could get them all like this.”

Preserving a legacy

The Holy Name Highest organ, Aeolian-Skinner OPUS 1204, was built in the Boston firm’s heyday when G. Donald Harrison was in charge of production. Case described him as “a revolutionary guy who made that company famous,” and in rebuilding OPUS 1204, his team was ever mindful of that.

When others move and rebuild organs, he said they often make changes affecting the sound and quality of the instrument. Case said his team adhered to the organ’s original plans to maintain its integrity and rich, lovely string tone.

“We’re very much about preserving the great legacy of Aeolian-Skinner, being really true to the sound that they had in mind, which is a very rich sound that excels for liturgical worship and supporting singing,” Case said.

“It is truly what we call the American Classic organ, a term that defines this style of organ building, particularly as Aeolian-Skinner did it. A lot of companies tried to copy them. Some were okay at it, but no one did it as good as these guys.”

With the organ restored to its original grandeur, efforts are underway to have it added to the Organ Historical Society Registry, just as Holy Name Seminary was placed on the National Register of Historic Places two years ago.

Case estimated his crew of eight spent 5,400 hours on the project from start to finish. The final stages involved adjusting the pipes in the chapel.

“We check their speech in the shop first, and then finally, every pipe is gone through in great detail again in the room,” he said. “The voicing is making the pipe behave, speaking its best and to a certain timbre. So a stop on an organ is typically 61 pipes, and the goal is to make all 61 of those be seamless from the bass to the very top.”

The very last step is what Case called tonal finishing, essentially fine tuning on site.

“Tonal finishing is the one where we listen to it, we play music, we play every pipe,” he said. “We go listen in the room, and we make adjustments.”

Another restored organ

With this organ ready for Advent services, Case has turned to other projects. Among them is an Aeolian-Skinner OPUS 1244, removed from a church in Rockford. Although somewhat smaller, it’s of the same period as the chapel organ, and it’s available if anyone is interested.

In talking to people about OPUS 1244 now in his shop, Case extends an offer. “I could install it in your house,” he said. However, he added, “It deserves to find another church home, so it can perform its birthright, leading worship.”




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