109-year-old pipe organ getting its original voice

Dale Shafman works on the restored 1882 Johnson pipe organ.

September 16, 1991|By Ernest F. Imhoff | Ernest F. Imhoff,Evening Sun Staff

In a story Monday about the restored Johnson pipe organ, Westminster Hall's location was incorrectly given. The building is at Fayette and Greene streets. The Evening Sun regrets the error.

Baltimore recovers a musical treasure in Westminster Hall this week when the last pipes are set in a 109-year-old organ that collected dust for a decade in Massachusetts and for 50 years earlier was an electrified revision of the 1882 original.

The Johnson pipe organ was played for a century in the Westminster Presbyterian Church at Lombard and Greene streets. In the 1930s, its mechanical pipes were given electrical action. In 1979, the church closed and nearby University of Maryland Law School officials took over the building as a private project.

FOR THE RECORD - CORRECTION

The organ was taken apart in 1980 and, for most of the last decade, stored at the Andover Organ Co., Andover, Mass., waiting for private funds to fix it up. It also waited in line behind other old instruments.

Its turn came. The law school folks raised their $131,000 in private donations and, thanks to them, the Johnson organ is back. The new-fangled electricity is gone. The original type of mechanical action is back, held with leather nuts and similar to the long-lasting mechanism that has kept one organ going since 1390 in Switzerland.

The original pipe designs in nine colors were stenciled on the zinc pipes after being found under the gold layer. The organ's 1,220 pipes are in tiptop shape. Some parts are replaced with parts from a few of the 800 other Johnson organs made in Westfield, Mass., by a firm now extinct. So, the pipe organ soon will be ready for playing.

"And it sounds great," said Don Olson, an organist and manager of the Andover firm, which has led an American revival of restoring mechanical-action organs and informally celebrated the revival last month. "The Baltimore Johnson is very typical early American and has the mellow Johnson sound."

Michael Britt, dean of the Baltimore Chapter, American Guild of Organists, confirmed the good news. "The organ is gorgeous in a room with wonderful acoustics," he said after playing it again. He first played it as a teen-ager in a service at Westminster Presbyterian Church. "Even then it sounded wonderful."

The conversion back to manual excites organists, Britt said, because mechanical-action organs give them better control: players can vary the way notes first sound and make the sounds come quicker. The organs also last longer with less maintenance.

"We're indebted to them," Britt said in praising officials at the law school and their Westminster Preservation Trust for saving and reviving the organ. Mary Jo Rodney directs the trust, acting dean Alan Hornstein is president and Doreen Rosenthal is first vice president. The building is rented out for private functions.

Rodney said the public gets its first big chance to hear the instrument at its dedication at 3 p.m. Nov. 17. The hall holds 350 and after some invitations, it will be first come, first served. Four organists expected to play are Britt, James Houston, Margaret Budd and Michael Gaffney, a law school graduate.

One invited guest will be the Rev. A. Harry Cole, the last pastor of Westminster and now pastor of Lochearn Presbyterian Church.

Before the dedication, the Baltimore String Quartet will play a Mozart church sonata for strings and organ Oct. 27. The organ will be played briefly for the annual Edgar Allan Poe Halloween ghost tour.

Not a bad idea, since pipe organs originally were associated with spookier events and pagan rituals. It wasn't until the 12th or 13th centuries that they entered churches, and secular as well as religious music has been written for them since.

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