Refurbished Organ Makes Second Debut

150-year-old Instrument Was Reconstructed For Authenticity

April 26, 1991|By ANGELA GAMBILL | ANGELA GAMBILL,STAFF WRITER

In a sunlit loft on an East Baltimore street, a 150-year-old pipe organ destined for Odenton's Epiphany Episcopal Church came back to life.

Pomplitz-Rodewald, Baltimore organ-builders since pre-Civil War days, built the red and gold beauty in 1859, not four blocks from Richard Howell's studio on Central Avenue.

Sunday, after three years of painstaking rebuilding, the 10-foot-high pump organ will make its debut in Odenton.

Howell's wife, Peggy Haas Howell, a teacher at Baltimore's Peabody Conservatory of Music, will play the organ at a dedication service Sunday morning at 10.

When Epiphany church discovered the organ in Upper Marlboro, it was "not in condition to make any sounds," said Richard Howell, a British craftsman who opened an organ-building and repair shop in Baltimore 10 years ago.

His first task for Pomplitz-Rodewald was to make the instrument function by restoring the wind system.

Once the organ could play, he could evaluate what else was wrong.

"I took eachpiece and decided what work it needed, doing as little as possible,"said Howell.

"We didn't want to spoil it, because an instrument this old is a document of how things were done, an insight into a way of life. There are precious few things today that have been around that long."

Howell's huge loft, cluttered with machines, wood, organpipes, tools, leather, a kiln and endless boxes of small parts made on the premises, is dedicated to preserving such old valuables.

For example, Howell refused to put any plastic parts into the organ, even if they would work better.

A more authentic replacement was to steam off the aged leather on the bellows and replace it with supple, new sheepskin. Howell hunted for old wood to replace the ribs of bellows that time and dampness warped.

Church members helped, too. Minister Phebe L. Coe and several parishioners repainted the casework, spending hours etching in five colors of oils with tiny brushes so the scratches would blend in.

They made several trips to Howell's studio in Baltimore to clean the insides of the organ -- with toothbrushes.

"The outside is lovely," said Coe. "The inside is exciting!"

The church also had 20 of the organ's 300 pipes replaced, and thewooden side pipes gold-leafed.

The organ saga has been an adventure, said Coe.

"Almost four years ago, I wrote to the New Hampshire Clearinghouse for Organs and said, 'We're looking for a pipe organ. We don't want Victorian, because the church is from the mission period. We prefer oak. Our ceilings are 12 feet high, so it can't be any higher than that.' "

After a few false starts, they were directed to St. Barnabas Episcopal Church in Upper Marlboro, where they found the Pomplitz-Rodewald. The 300-pipe organ operates by tracker-action;the instrument is manual, not electric.

It was the right size andthe right price.

Howell crawled into the organ's interior to see if it had been tampered with, and with his recommendation, the church bought it.

Within a month, two donations had covered the purchase price of $2,000. Then the real work -- and cost -- began.

In the $11,000 renovation that followed, the important thing to both Howell and the church was to retain the instrument's authenticity.

"I was trying not to create anything illusory," said Howell.

He explained that organs began to be mass-produced in this country in the secondhalf of the 19th century. Organs were standardized and cheaper, and electronics soon replaced the person who pumped the organ, producing the energy that made the sound.

Howell calls this a period of decadence, in which electronics made it possible for the interior of an organ to be physically separated from the keyboard and the organist.

"Something is lost musically when you replace a person with a machine," he says. "It's a very subtle thing."

But Epiphany's new organ, which Howell restored so that it can be played both electronically and by pumping the bellows by hand, "has a lot of honesty to it," he said.

The church invites the community to celebrate its dedication with the Sunday service and with a dinner and dance tonight at the Odenton Volunteer Fire Department. Tickets are available for $16 for adults and $5 for children.

For Coe, the organ will enhance church worship, but it also is an antique that needed to be restored.

"It's a treasure," she said. "Every year, we'll do a little something to improve parts of it."

Howell surveyed his work on the Pomplitz-Rodewald with the smile of a man who has done his bit toward maintaining integrity in a synthetic, transitory world.

"There's a certain fundamental worth which time can't change," he said. "It will be appreciated a very long time."

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