“OHS turns 40: thoughts on modern organ restoration”

by Jonathan Ambrosino

The Organ Historical Society happily celebrates its fortieth anniversary this year. Since its inception in 1956, the OHS has fought vigourously and effectively for the cause of the historic American organ. Their efforts have paid off: more and more organs, large and small, are restored according to their Guidelines for Conservation and Restoration. This simple page, authored more than twenty years ago by restorer and tracker organ builder George Bozeman and modified only slightly since then, sets forth a simple code of good restoration conduct: if something has worked reliably, then refurbish it according to the original manufacture and techniques used to build it; if it has proven unreliable, or secondary conditions prevent reliable operation, then—and only then—alter it with the greatest sensitivity and make your work easy to undo at a later time.

At first, the OHS concerned itself with the vanishing legacy of 19th-century tracker organs. Early proponents of 19th-century organs, active in the 1950s, were considered virtually a lunatic fringe, their cause seemingly at odds with a world dominated by new electro-pneumatic instruments of American Classic tonal design. Forty years ago, the rebuilding of an 1860s organ without electrifying the key action was a radical notion, usually signifying a lack of funds. When such instruments began to be taken seriously, they still tended to be treated as somehow defective for not having been built like modern organs. It was not uncommon for the actions to be replaced with new sub-assemblies, rollerboards and trackers; tonal changes were sometimes drastic, other times relatively inconsequential.

As when such organs were rebuilt or electrified in the past, many an Aeoline or Dulciana was “improved” into a higher pitched stop, or the slide re-used for the mixture “the organ always lacked.” It is indicative of the period that in 1963, when the Andover Organ Company performed the first American “re-trackerisation” of an electrified tracker organ, at the St. George’s Primitive Methodist Church in Methuen, Massachusetts to a James Treat organ, they did not hesitate to make sweeping tonal changes as well.) Aside from tonal changes on new toe-boards, slider chests were generally left alone, more from fear than anything else, since almost no builders were constructing new slider chests at that time, and the question of retabling and rehabilitation seemed particularly daunting. In default, cracks were patched in the usual ways. (Very few 19th-century tracker organs had cone-valve chests, their use primarily limited to midwestern builders of German background.)

The stream of imported neo-classic tracker organs in the 1950s and early ’60s, and in particular the 1958 Flentrop organ at the Busch-Reisinger Museum in Cambridge, changed American thinking about the slider windchest, and thus the techniques for restoring old ones. Over the last thirty years, as mechanical-action builders have learned for themselves what works and what doesn’t, the restoration field has followed suit. This experience, coupled with ever-growing historical awareness in all organ work, has brought about a truer overall restoration philosophy. Nowadays, an action is replaced (usually re-fabricated in the style of the original builder) only in cases where the original has already been discarded; this practice is akin to Harrison & Harrison’s replications of Father Willis and T.C. Lewis mechanical actions in small instruments. Where chests remain in good condition and continue to operate well, they are commonly retained as is, preferably with as little handling as possible. Fritz Noack, in his re-trackerisation and restoration of the 1864 Hook organ in Mechanics Hall Worcester (the first significant American-built concert organ) in 1982, kept the chests in situ and patched cracks in the time-honored fashion. In 1981, George Bozeman’s restoration of an 1860 Hook organ in St. John’s R.C., Bangor, Maine received similar treatment; the chests were cleaned up, but otherwise remained—Hippocratically—as they were.

Where widespread splitting, warping and cracking has occurred, windchests are re-tabled, usually with marine-grade plywood, and sometimes fitted with slider seals. The course taken depends on the philosophy of the restorer and the extremity of the conditions. In the above-mentioned Maine church, a 1993 restoration of the sanctuary included a re-plastering of the church and a new heating system. The re-plastering was performed in August, and the heating was turned on full blast to make the plaster dry faster. During the winter, the final work was done, once more with the heat on full blast. The organ got been more humid than ever before, followed by a period of unprecedented dryness. humid than ever before, and come fall the chest tables crack, but so did all the pews. The restorer of the organ, George Bozeman, was called back, this time to re-table the chests. (The church bought new pews as well.)

With the proliferation of tracker organbuilders and decades of experience, several firms have now made a specialty of re-tabling, not only for their own contracts but for other builders. A few have even gone so far as to have a computer scanner “read” the table of an old chest, and, using a CAD-driven router, automatically bore out a new table. Such a practice, when called for, can be extremely cost effective and accurate. In general, it is considered a last recourse to install brand-new chests when damages or financial considerations render impractical the rebuilding of the originals.

Tonal changes and additions are still performed, but to a far lesser extent than before, and in general with greater sensitivity. If a client really wants a Pedal Trombone added to an old Hook, for instance, it is much more likely nowadays to be built along Hook lines, speaking from a windchest built in the Hook style. The decision tends to be based upon an assessment of the original conditions: in the case of a tenor C Oboe, might the builder have provided the bass octave if the Church could have afforded it? Does another instrument of this size, style and period have a full-compass stop? A hundred years later, now that the Church can afford it, should they be able to purchase the bottom octave? Whatever the results of these debates, when stops are added, it is now considered highly desirable that they blend in both tonally and mechanically. It should be stressed, however, that where such additions used to be alarmingly commonplace, even in situations involving builders, organists and consultants of considerable historical awareness, they now occur far less frequently. One restorer has jokingly offered a “Mutation Extension Kit” which returns twenty-year-old Nazards, Tierces and Larigots to the Aeolines, Dulcianas and Keraulophons of a century ago.

In general, restoring late 19th-century and early 20th-century organs poses more difficult questions. Mechanically, American organbuilding entered a period of tremendous experimentation from 1890 to 1915. Most builders abandoned the slider chest for new designs, most proprietary and unusual. One overall challenge with most of these chests (such as early Skinner side-bar chests, Aeolian ventil chests, Hutchings) is that their design does not permit of ready disassembly. It is important to remember that leather failure was practically unknown to these builders; we still have (as must be the case in England) bellows from the mid-1850s in which the leather is still in fine operating condition. Therefore, while access to the action is often provided, many builders may well not have foreseen the necessity for releathering these chests. Skinner’s horizontal pouchboard pitman chest of 1910, as first employed in the Cathedral of Saint John the Divine in New York City, was perhaps the earliest individual-valve chest whose restoration could be called a straightforward process.

It follows that many restorers, even talented ones, have been daunted by the prospect of restoring what may be the un-restorable in these early electro-pneumatic actions. However, it has been done: the 1907 Hutchings-Votey at St. Joseph’s Cathedral in Seattle, Washington, restored by Franz Bozman and René Marçeau; the 1906 Ernest Skinner at the University of Virginia, restored by the Thompson-Allen Company in 1984 and then again by Xaver Wilhelmy after water damage; the 1917 Aeolian organ in Reynolda House in North Carolina, currently under restoration by Norman Ryan. Careful disassembly coupled with custom jigs, moisture meters and climate control help these chests go back together correctly.

Tonally, history has already dealt unkindly with many of these late-romantic, orchestral or symphonic organs. Twenty years ago, common wisdom had progressed enough to embrace the restoration of the Hook, but still considered far-fetched the idea of rebuilding an E.M. Skinner organ without altering it tonally. (Indeed, there is now no entirely original and intact E.M. Skinner organ between Opera 127 and 232, 1906 and 1915.) Increasingly, however, these early and not-so-early electro-pneumatic organs are being restored without tonal alteration.

The study of such matters was the topic of the 1996 American Institute Organbuilders Mid-Year Seminar. In addition to its annual convention in October, the AIO holds a Mid-Year Seminar devoted to the intensive study of a single topic. This year’s offering, “Restoring the Electro-pneumatic Organ,” was hosted on a snowy February weekend in Boston by Nelson Barden Associates. Joining the Barden staff were Joseph Dzeda, Nicholas Thompson-Allen and Kurt Bocco of the A. Thompson-Allen Company at Yale University (New Haven, Connecticut), Edward Stout of San Francisco, and Douglass Hunt of New York City—an assembly representing what is generally regarded as the top talent in the field. Also taking part was Larry Pruett of Columbia Organ Leathers in Pennsylvania, who have done as much as any firm to provide the organ industry with responsibly-tested, long-lasting leather.

The Seminar was popular and successful beyond any prediction, and is indicative of trends in the American organ scene. In the first place, attendance was high: although 200 to 250 attend the large conventions, the AIO Mid-Year Seminars are customarily kept to between eight and 15 participants in order to foster an intimate atmosphere. Although the format of the restoration seminar was not intended to be quite so small, 38 paying participants was still remarkable, especially considering that seminar attendance in Boston meant losing two days’ work plus an average outlay of about $1,000 for travel, accommodation and registration fee (which was set at $365). Moreover, it is noteworthy that the AIO, an organisation primarily of builders, would sponsor a seminar devoted to restoration. In the last ten to fifteen years, there has been a fundamental shift in the American organ climate. While not dominating the organ scene, the refurbishing of old organs—for true restoration or more standard-fare rebuilding—is unquestionably claiming a higher percentage of all organ work being done. Builders who have been understandably reluctant to enter into such work in the past, for fear of altering tried-and-true shop work-flow, are now realising that if they do not establish some kind of visible track record with old organs, they are liable to miss out on an increasing share of market activity. Furthermore, clients with any degree of historical awareness are increasingly demanding about how an existing work is treated, and expectations for reliability and longevity are accordingly higher than ever. Inevitably, it may come the point at which ratio of new organ-building to rebuilding approaches in America what has long been the case in British organbuilding.

Not only was the Seminar’s success a sign of the general interest in restoration, it summed up the kind of fraternity that has existed in the American restoration field for several decades, and is increasingly a part of all American organbuilding. Common wisdom might dictate that the
co-presenters of the recent Seminar should be competitors, but in fact they are not only colleagues but friends, regularly in touch on philosophical and technical matters. In one sense, the Seminar merely extended their camaraderie into a more public offering. And, as often occurs in such seminars, the presenters have said how they learned practically as much as the participants as the other way around. Neither is there the “latented frustrated organbuilders” syndrome, in which the restorer’s will is imposed on an instrument. Nelson Barden sums up his satisfaction as a restorer by saying that, “while it takes a necessary suppression of the ego to restore someone else’s creativity, there are often times when the process calls upon the restorer to be every bit as creative as the original builder.”

Furthermore, as with the remarkable array of new organbuilding here, the wide spectrum of instruments and clients have permitted a general extension of the restoration aesthetic. Where the English builder would meticulously restore the case, but never think of doing likewise to the interior mechanism and pipework, the American restorer is not afraid to consider the entire organ as a work of architectural art. Increasingly, it is common to find that organ cases and chambers are meticulously repainted and plastered, pipes cleaned and re-varnished following original techniques, the woodwork of the organ interior receiving a fresh finish, and additional lighting being installed—rather than money being put into such items as tonal additions. But the process has limits. As Joseph Dzeda has written:

“The organ restorer, like any other work in restoration, must confront a basic issue, namely knowing when to stop. On the one hand it would be possible to do the scrimpy minimum to return the instrument to duty, eschewing all but the most unavoidable tasks in the name of (misplaced) historicity, (false) economy, or simply good old-fashioned laziness. Organs restored to these standards tend to look not fully refreshed, like someone who shows up for work bleary-eyed and having slept in yesterday’s clothes. At the other extreme one could strip and refinish every square inch of woodwork, replace every scrap of felt, and generally indulge in every imaginable exercise of gratuitous restoration in an attempt to make the result look like it was made yesterday. Taking our cue from the techniques used to conserve antiques, we advocate a more moderate approach, seeking to preserve the undeniable patina of the past, while generally freshening up the organ’s chassis and pipework to give the impression not of a new instrument, but rather of one which has been respectfully cared for over the years.”