Organ builder-collectors pull out all the stops to make homes for their mammoth and hugely beloved musical instruments.


November 16, 1998|By Glenn McNatt | Glenn McNatt,SUN STAFF

Mike Gaffney sits at his pipe organ's console. It has five keyboards and a pedal board. Rows of knobs, buttons, switches and couplers completely fill its front and sides. It looks like the cockpit of an airliner.

But that's just the beginning.

Behind the console are the real works of the instrument -- electric blowers, reservoirs, windchests and about 6,000 (so far) pipes arranged in ranks of various sizes, from penny whistles the thickness of soda straws to bass behemoths 16 feet tall and 18 inches around.

The whole thing, which Gaffney installed in his home off Harford Road a few years back, takes up a space maybe 40 feet wide, 60 feet long and 30 feet high, or about the size of a small car wash. Every available square inch beneath the ceiling seems crammed with wires, ducts, valves, cables, tubing, pipes and more pipes.

Some of the pipes are made of brass, some of tin or other metals. The largest ones are the wooden, 16-foot bass pipes, which are actually closer to 18 feet in length. They are so long that, in order to fit them in the space, they have to be installed lying on their sides.

"This all happened as sort of an accident," Gaffney says rather sheepishly. Then he turns back to the keyboard and bangs out a spirited rendition of Bach's "Sleepers Awake!"

With all the stops out, you feel like the sound can be heard clear to the beltway.

Mike Gaffney is a fanatical tinkerer, a dreamer, a visionary, a romantic. He has invested years of his life and no small amount of treasure to install an organ in his house, a project many might view as Quixotic.

There's something disproportionate about it, like having a pet elephant or commuting to work in a dump truck. Even J.S. Bach, the greatest organist of his day and an expert in its construction, never had a full-size pipe organ in his house.

And yet there are people all across the Baltimore region who do. There's an active group called the Free State Theater Organ Society, for example, that restores old pipe organs from the days of silent movies. Several of its members have theater organs in their homes.

But many enthusiasts don't belong to any organized group. They are just fans of the instrument or music lovers. There are any number of Web sites aimed at organ enthusiasts, but locally people seem more likely to know of each other through simple word-of- mouth.

Thinking big

What they have in common is that they are great individualists, as befits people who devote themselves to a single big idea.

And we mean BIG -- huge Moeller church organs with thousands of pipes, fancy Aeolian residential organs with self-player mechanisms originally designed for the mansions of 19th century robber barons.

These are the organs that put the king in the "king of instruments."

Nowadays, of course, the old robber barons are long gone, and a lot of church congregations have moved to the suburbs.

The old pipe organs they left behind languish in abandoned buildings or lie disassembled in thousands of pieces at some salvage yard.

Then someone like Gaffney comes along and says, hey, wouldn't it be neat to put this all back together again?

Gaffney is a lawyer by vocation. But when he's not filing court briefs, he's also a Peabody-trained church musician and choir director who confesses to a lifelong love affair with organ-playing and organ-building.

"It started when my law partner heard that this church in Littlestown, Pa., was selling its pipe organ," he explains. "It was a little tiny organ. So I went up and bought it. That was the seed."

Thus does the giant oak spring from the tiny acorn.

A couple months later, Gaffney found another bargain when the Moeller Organ Co. in Hagerstown went out of business. For years, Moeller was the largest organ company in the world.

For $2,700, Gaffney picked up about $350,000 worth of stuff from the Moeller factory -- vital parts such as pipes, windchests, reservoirs and blowers.

"The little organ was still in storage," he recalls. "I had planned to build a small lean-to for it in the yard. But after the Moeller factory sale, I got this big console and all this equipment. So I decided I needed an addition to the house."

A little more house

When the builders got finished, the addition was as big as the original house, with its own air-conditioning and heating system.

The organ's electric blower drew so much current, Gaffney had to run in a separate power line. He also padded the building with double-thick walls so as not to disturb the neighbors.

Meanwhile, he was busy figuring out how to combine the little Littlestown instrument with the Moeller monster organ. He read books on organ-building. He called up friends who had organs in their own houses.

He sorted through all 6,000 pipes, from the soda-straw penny whistles to the behemoth Big Berthas and matched each of them to its own set of mechanical enablers -- seals, actuators, pallets, sliders, pistons, languids, flues, valves and other organ esoterica.

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