A new pipe organ for Village Presbyterian Church’s sanctuary features a big sound — a very big sound — matching the effort it took to put it there.
When officials at the Prairie Village church realized their old church organ needed to be replaced, they looked all over the country to decide who they wanted to make the instrument. After taking trips to North Carolina, Nebraska and several other places, they decided on Richards, Fowkes and Co. in Tennessee.
It took the company’s 11 workers two years — expending about 35,000 work hours — to build the pipe organ. And although the organ has been in use since Nov. 20, it is still not a finished product.
Raising the money to pay for the organ and the related renovations to the church building was a lengthy process.
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“We knew this was the prime opportunity to improve the architecture of the church,” Elisa Bickers, associate director of music and principal organist at the church. “There were some acoustic problems, and pipe organs…are only as good as the room.”
The improvements included a coffered ceiling to bounce the sound, a new sound system and steel supports and a concrete wall to support the 16-ton instrument. Altogether, the cost of the renovations totaled $5.5 million in addition to the $2 million for the pipe organ itself.
The renovations “gave us a chance to design the room and the organ as an integral unit,” said Bruce Fowkes, a partner at Richards, Fowkes and Co.
The organ has about 3,800 pipes controlled by 58 keys with 60 stops and can produce a large variety of sounds and tones.
“The organ was the first synthesizer. It was a medieval synthesizer,” Fowkes said. “You can combine the different colors to form new synthetic sounds, and that’s at the will of the organist.”
Function was the key in designing this organ. Because Village Church has a large and varied music program, they needed to build something that could support all those diverse sounds. In addition, the church welcomes various people from the community, including students studying the organ, to use its instrument.
“A very small organ will lead a congregation in hymn-singing,” said Fowkes. “They wanted an organ that had a lot more resources, a lot more colors.”
Building an organ requires an assortment of skills, from the fields of architecture and engineering to metal work and decorating.
“The thing that no one will ever understand—and it’s hard to even describe—is how careful you have to be when you select the material, the wood you’re going to build from, because it needs to be stable in so many different directions,” said Fowkes.
The Village instrument is mainly poplar and maple, with some walnut, Douglas fir and more.
Fowkes’ team built sections of the organ that they brought pre-assembled from Tennessee, but there was still a lot of work to be done once they arrived. No pre-assembled piece can be bigger than the largest door to the building or the room containing the instrument.
Inside the organ, there are lots of moving pieces, but there isn’t a lot of room to move and work. Assembling those pre-assembled pieces is like working on a “huge jigsaw puzzle” Fowkes said, because they don’t want to have to remove a piece they’ve already installed to get to another piece later on in the process.
Installing the organ took two months, but it will take another six months to voice it, or adjust all the pipes for the exact sounds. It’s kind of like tuning a piano, except voicing an organ involves making physical adjustments to the shapes of the pipes. Fowkes will remain here to complete the voicing.
The organ builders are constantly adding stops during this voicing process. It will be some time this spring before all 3,800 pipes are operating and are fully voiced.
“The idea that we do the final tonal finishing on site is somewhat unique and special… the tonal finishing really takes the musical piece of it to a higher level,” said John Brown, business and operations manager for Richards, Fowkes and Co.