“A Good Story with a Bad Ending: M.P. Möller 1875-1992”

by Jonathan Ambrosino

When Æolian-Skinner closed, the American organ industry underwent a black moment: a venerable rm could no longer operate protably. Common sense says that when any business can no longer operate protably, the industry is probably better off without it. But there seemed a darker issue at hand: “Will this happen to our company? If they could not see it coming, how will we?” Other builders felt the closure costing more than good industry morale, even though they could not pinpoint the exact motive behind their head-shaking.

While not cheap, Æolian-Skinner’s demise could have cost far more. Vendors, investors and landlords suffered the most, while factory workers lost no money, unnished contracts were reässigned, machinery and goods were auctioned off, and employees either relocated to other companies or formed new ones. After the worst aftershocks subsided, the industry resumed its pace.

Compared to 1972, the 1992 closing of M.P. Möller caused far more serious repercussions. Last April, one hundred sixteen employees lost not only their jobs without notice, but their nal two weeks’ pay as well. Many vendors were left with sizable unsettled accounts. And more than forty clients lost down-payments, an experience made no less painful by months of speculation as to whether the company would reopen to honor its contracts. Industry sixth senses had already gone off, since the company had been sustaining more and more debt in recent years and the scenario seemed to indicate that all parties would lose.

Yet when Möller’s doors nally closed last April, the industry turned not to anger but remorse, a sentiment which intensied in January when hundreds appeared en masse in Hagerstown, Maryland for a liquidation-auction to raise funds for Möller’s debtors. Far more than a public business occasion, the four-day auction resembled a state funeral, the massive sooty factory a brick casket around which many might gather to pay their last respects. Repeat visitors were still awed by the vast scale on which organbuilding had been practiced in this immense plant; the rst-time visitor was dumbstruck. Not often does one confront seventy-ve drill presses lined up for duty, much less two hundred and forty individual auction lots of metal bar clamps.

But the world’s largest organbuilder required such a facility. While Möller may not have been able to claim the industry accolades of other rms (Skinner the pacesetter, Austin the inventor, Holtkamp the “radical Baroquist”), Möller could always talk staggering numbers: by the end, the rm had built more than 12,000 organs (the last numbered 11,860, though several hundred were built outside of the opus cycle). The plant employed as many as four hundred during its ’20s heyday (and an amazing eight hundred during the war effort), turning out respectable middle-class instruments. In some cases, Möller was willing to build what a client could not afford from another builder. In other situations, the zeal to get instruments sold and installed may have eclipsed specic artistic ambition. But the lack of drive to establish a new style occasionally worked in Möller’s favor: by working with a full knowledge of the prevailing mode, the company could produce an instrument which we now be recognized as a mature example of its style, even if slightly dated at the time.

Such conservatism guided the rm from the start. Mathias Peter Möller began his business in 1875 building sturdy mechanical action organs. Opus 266, a ne tracker of 1900, still stands in the First Christian Church (originally Presbyterian), Danville, Virginia. A solid organ both tonally and mechanically, this Möller is representative of how the rm could rest rmly on nineteenth-century principles while looking cautiously ahead. After 1905, Möller gradually moved toward the Symphonic style, adopting unication and duplexing as a matter of course. Selling literally thousands of consistent, reliable organs, Möller built up an enormous business, neither following nor leading the way. Beyond church-organ building, Möller became the fourth largest builder of theatre organs, behind Wurlitzer, Robert-Morton and Kimball. Possibly the most lauded extant example is the Atlanta Fox, a 1929 4/47 dazzler which was clearly considered the best organ of last year’s AGO National Convention.

Perhaps Möller’s most notable achievement of the ’20s was the Artiste Reproducing Player, which permitted four separate voices to play simultaneously. Möller’s roll wizard was Frederick Hoschke, whose propensity for buoyant rhythms and kaleidoscopic registrations allowed the Artiste to make music quite unlike any other player system. Furthermore, the Artiste required only a small cabinet, all the more astounding given the system’s many multiplexed complexities.

It was not until 1931 and the arrival of Willis protégé Richard O. Whitelegg that Möller’s tonal production gained real virility. Whitelegg was a hands-on, fully-trained organbuilder who could just as well build consoles as voice Tubas. He had apprenticed at Willis in England, where his voicing can be heard at Liverpool and Westminster Cathedrals, Willis III’s most famous instruments (a fact which Whitelegg’s American employers were quick to advertise). Upon arriving in the States, Whitelegg started with Welte, coming to Möller shortly before Welte’s absorption by Kimball in early 1931.

Whitelegg’s rst major assignment was in many ways his most outstanding: the 1931 4/86 at the Philadelphia Convention Center, following the “English Ensemble” style of American tonal design. More than a major concert instrument (twin Great ue choruses, ery Willis-type Swell, miniature Choir ensemble, big Solo and massive Pedal), this marvelous instrument also played as a nineteen-rank theatre organ with its own console. Fitted with Möller’s Artiste—every roll custom-registered for the comprehensive specication—the organ’s third personality was revealed as one of the most astonishing automatic musical instruments of all time.

The Philadelphia organ was the result of Möller’s desire for a rst-class showpiece; since the job lacked the input of an organist or consultant, Whitelegg may have felt free to create an individual statement. Such conditions were probably rare; seemingly determined to sell contracts, please clients, and secure nal payments, Möller put prots before progress, allowing the urgent to undermine the important. Ultimately Whitelegg was more a head voicer than tonal director (unlike G. Donald Harrison, for instance, who enjoyed wide governance over almost every aspect of the Æolian-Skinner organ), and he grew impatient with his lack of overall control and the company’s tendencies to stress group efforts over the promotion of individual personalities.

Whitelegg died in 1944, succeeded by a pupil, John Schleigh, and Mr. Schleigh’s assistant, John Hose. But a greater inuence came from Ernest White (1900-1980), a talented organist who directed the music at New York’s Church of St. Mary the Virgin. White had been one of Lynnwood Farnam’s star pupils in the late ’20s, and emerged as a key player in the American organ reform movement. Through the ’30s and ’40s, White had Æolian-Skinner build many novel small organs for his various apartments and studios, often with esoteric specications, scalings and mixture compositions. In the ’50s, White became involved with Möller, leading them down his specic American Classic path. Once again, Möller had not set the trend, but was keeping abreast of a style which others (Holtkamp, Æolian-Skinner) had long since established. Though not a voicer, White designed a number of large organs and nished several of them, a notable example being St. George’s Church, New York City.

In the later years, Möller witnessed other tonal inuences. Former Æolian-Skinner president and tonal director Donald Gillett went to Möller in 1972, working for fteen years before Daniel Angerstein succeeded him in 1987. As before, group efforts were stressed over individual ones. In the last years, the company adopted the “nouveau robust” tonal design begun in the American tracker world. In organs such as the Seventh-Day Adventist Church in Spencerville, Maryland, and the enormous ve-manual, two-hundred-ve rank job in Calvary Church, Charlotte, North Carolina, Möller endeavored to structure compelling statements in a modern eclectic, almost neo-Romantic, idiom. Dedicated in September of 1990, the Calvary instrument went so far as to include not merely numerous ue-and-reed choruses but a small gospel division with a Tibia, Kinura and theatre-type tremulant—to meet the requirements of Southern Church.

Nineteen months after this dedication, the Möller plant closed, not to open again until auction day. The realities of an untenable nancial position had at last forced a closure, of which certain factors remain undisputed. The employees were unionized; management characterized them as unwilling to try new methods which might bring labor costs under control. The union characterized management as bossy know-it-alls. Between these two extremes lay the fundamental problem of a growing debt, made worse in recent years by a steady stream of cut-price contracts.

Touring an old factory is usually a historian’s delight; from the rst stride, the Möller plant on auction day presented a morbid excursion. In almost every room, it was plainly evident that workers left one day expecting to return the next—and never did.

Through the plant hung a stale air of suspension: memos still pinned to bulletin boards, describing cash difculties and nancial stress; calendars still open to last April; work in progress still waiting patiently for someone to return. In many cases, entire benches were auctioned off “as is;” if a pipemaker had brought over a set of mandrels, they got auctioned along with the rest of the bench. Room after room greeted the visitor: myriad small parts, stacks of partially-completed pedalboards, a decade’s supply of swell pedals, tuning slides for the masses. The effect on visiting organbuilders was noticeable. Suddenly, seeing all the individual components of an organ conrmed precisely what a daunting project even the smallest organ presents. Many remained contemplative, as might a room full of pilots who suddenly discovered they were afraid to y.

The auctioneer tackled the building geographically, and the crowd followed his voice: from metal-casting room to machine shop to lumber sheds, the music of quick sell was broadcast continually from the auctioneer’s headset microphone through a portable speaker. When one auctioneer’s voice grew hoarse, another replaced him, so that the action could continue uninterrupted. If people came for bargains, they went home surprised; with very few exceptions, much of the machinery, supplies and even novelty items commanded high bids. One example was the rotating metal thickness planer (drum lathe); the subject of intense bidding, the specialty machine nally went to Robert Schopp (its maker) for $21,500. The “Chandelier Organ,” a circular chest suspended from the ceiling with eight- and four-foot trumpet stops arranged in descending spirals, commanded $18,500 from local real estate broker Vincent Groh. Perhaps the real bargain occurred when Mr. Groh returned the last day to purchase the factory itself for just $90,000.

Although many builders came hoping to purchase certain exotic machines which only large companies can justify, much of the auction’s drama centered around those bidders aiming to establish new businesses. The principal concern of these concerns is the King Of Instruments Corporation, who purchased the Möller company name, archives, post ofce box and telephone number. Headed by Mr. Paul Stuck, this new rm plans to lease space in the old factory, having located temporarily at the Advanced Technical Center of the Hagerstown Junior College. Their telephone is now answered, “Hello, King of Instruments, builders of Möller and Renaissance Organs, how may I direct your call?” The Renaissance line refers to the pipe-electronic combinations Mr. Stuck wishes to build, in addition to pipe organs bearing the Möller nameplate. The company is envisioned as an umbrella organization to sell and assemble organs, using dedicated vendors for pipework, voicing and mechanisms (perhaps in an attempt to avoid the union problems considered so precipitous to Möller’s downfall). Joining Mr. Stuck are former salesman William Gray and tonal man Daniel Angerstein.

Another operation involves Frederick Morrison, Jack Rogers, Delphin Froushour and David Keedy, a group of pipemakers and voicers who aim to establish a pipe shop in Hagerstown. These gentleman successfully acquired a number of pipe-making tools at auction, but it remains uncertain whether they will supply pipework to King Of Instruments, become a national supply house, or both.

Two other businesses have begun operations. The rst is Irving G. Lawless & Associates. Mr. Lawless, an all-around organbuilder who functioned in many roles at Möller, has resumed a maintenance and restoration business; his rm is currently rebuilding the Æolian-Skinner Organ in the Kennedy Center, Washington D.C. The second is Hagerstown Organ Company, whose principals are H. Allen Barnhart, Robert H. Yeakle and Craig P. Doyle. The rm have already undertaken several contracts, the rst of which was the completion of a ve-manual console for First Congregational Church, Los Angeles, begun by Möller. Hagerstown are limiting their activities to console work (both new and rebuilding), additions, minor rebuilding and service work, having already acquired more than forty maintenance contracts.

But the most poignant visitors to the auction were former Möller employees, quietly taking a nal roam through the building, shufing in their own time to the auction square-dance. Mill men inspected their former lumber piles; pipemakers handled scale sticks and patterns one last time; old-timers in the reed shop gazed at shallots lying in trays, innocent tubes of brass waiting for openings to be cut so they might assume a tonal nationality.

Beyond the industry’s feelings over Möller’s passing, these workers suffer doubly, both within and outside the sphere of this immense factory. In one sense, they might feel relieved, as would a child over the end of a parent’s long illness; after all, no amount of articial resuscitation can take life’s place. Mingled with relief may come anger, borne of lost money and broken promises, unnished work and unmended honor. And perhaps ultimately there is resignation, the painful acceptance that, for no single reason, good stories can have bad endings. Those who made the pilgrimage to Hagerstown and paid their last respects came not just for bargains but for some larger lesson in other people’s mistakes. If this story had a moral, then it left the imprint of its precise and uncompromising implications on all in attendance.