Few people think about what happens to a church after it closes its doors for good. Some are turned into hip coffee shops; others, repurposed into art galleries; and some torn down completely to make way for luxury apartments.
Before the age of electronic music, if you walked through a church, hidden deep within its chambers you could find a pipe organ worth hundreds of thousands of dollars.
When Dr. Carl Dodrill saw churches in Seattle being torn down and beloved pipe organs discarded along with them, it motivated him to create the Pipe Organ Foundation. The nonprofit organization’s goal is to rescue pipe organs destined for the trash. Twenty years since its founding, the grassroots organization is still operating out of Dodrill’s tiny workshop on Mercer Island, which is overflowing with salvaged organ pipes, loose wires and keyboard consoles. Dodrill’s foundation is completely volunteer-based, drawing on a variety of skill sets, including craft woodworkers and people with tech backgrounds from Microsoft.
“All you have to do is look at downtown Seattle and you can see places where big churches used to be, and they're not there anymore. Instead, we have a 40-story, high-rise building on that site,” Dodrill said.
Dodrill said a person doesn’t have to look far to see the shrinking pipe organ landscape. First Presbyterian Seattle, less than a block away from Town Hall, is one Dodrill is watching. He sees it is in the process of being sold to a real estate developer, and he is determined to rescue its organ. “Almost all of those churches a hundred years ago had a pipe organ,” Dodrill explained.
Roosevelt High School, Mercer Island Presbyterian Church, Issaquah Covenant Presbyterian Church and Northlake Lutheran Church in Kenmore are some of the many places the foundation has either repaired or installed an organ.
The causes of pipe organ decline are multifaceted. Organs are expensive, both to repair and buy. A new organ can cost up to $500,000, forcing many churches or people to abandon the instrument if it breaks and turn toward cheaper alternatives like electronic pianos or recorded music.
An organ's initial design, the construction of parts and fitting all the parts together can take thousands of labor hours. In Washington state, Dodrill knows of only two organ shops that build from scratch and three repair shops.
If Dodrill can’t fix an organ, he scraps it for parts and uses it to build a new organ. “What we have to do is make the organ so it has the right voice for that congregation,” Dodrill said. “Typically I go to their services … so it’s tailor-made for them. No organ is the same.” The liturgy of the service will influence the voice of the organ that Dodrill’s team makes.
Currently, the Pipe Organ Foundation is working on an organ that will be played inside Faith Lutheran Church of Seattle. The organ will be customized to play classical music and the sound will complement composers such as Bach, Mendelssohn or Mozart. A unique feature for this organ is that its pipes will be grouped together to mimic the sound of a cello or a violin.
“What that does is it gives a very interesting textual flavor to the sound,” Dodrill said. “It's warm — it's inviting. And that's the kind of thing this particular congregation, I think, really likes when they come in and sit down. They want to be warmly invited.”
The Pipe Organ Foundation works on a donation basis and normally will charge one-tenth of the cost of a pipe organ repair. In the case of Faith Lutheran, the total project cost estimate is $120,000-$150,000. Luckily, the church has already reached its fundraising goal of $50,000 for the organ and is on track for installation by 2022.
Pastor Shannyn Fuerst of Faith Lutheran said her congregation has gone completely virtual, and although Zoom has kept her members connected, it has also shown the importance of live worship.
“Just like how everybody has different personalities and preferences, it's going to be the same thing for worship,” Fuerst said. “Some people worship much more deeply through music and sound. Some people worship through movement, and some worship better through smells or sights.”
Fuerst is confident there will not be a trend to move away from live worship and when it is safe she expects to see her sanctuary filled with a vibrant congregation. Fuerst said her parishioners are looking forward to the day they can all be together, worshipping and listening to their new organ.
No one will be more excited about that day than David Buice, the organist at Faith Lutheran, who has been playing professionally for over 50 years. As a small child, Buice would sit on the organists’ bench and watch them play.
Pressurized air rushes through pipes of a variety of lengths, creating melodies surrounding everyone gathered — to be engaged in silence the moment a finger is lifted from a key. Knobs twisting, feet tapping on pedals and darting eyes on sheet music captivated young Buice. It was these early experiences that led Buice to pursue a career as an organist and later study it professionally at the University of Alabama in Tuscaloosa.
What Buice likes most about an organ is the fact that it has a living, rich sound when played, as opposed to recorded music, which to many sounds dead and sterile.
“Some pipes on a pipe organ you actually feel more than you hear,” Buice said. “As you play, the sound gradually fills the room and builds. … You get more of an immersive experience from a pipe organ than from any other type of instrument.”
Before the Industrial Revolution, the pipe organ was considered the most complex mechanical musical instrument.
Buice plays a practice organ at Faith Lutheran, which has nine ranks of organ pipes; a “rank” is a group of the same type of pipes. The Pipe Organ Foundation is providing the church with an organ that will be 3.5 times larger than the practice organ and have 21 ranks: six ranks of diapason pipes, four flute ranks, four string ranks, four reed ranks and a three-rank mixture.
According to the American Guild of Organists, there is a shrinking pool of young people choosing to play the organ. In a 2015 survey, the organization found that 60% of its 16,000 members were 54 years of age or older; only 11% were millennials — meaning 11% then were younger than 40.
According to the report, it is projected that in the next two decades, once the baby-boomer population retires or passes away, there will be a shortage of qualified organists for institutions to hire. In relevant news, this would be a good time for interested organists to start a career.
Although enrollment in organ pipe programs is low across the country, Buice is still optimistic about its future. “The fact that a kid can sit at these keyboards and match what they’re hearing to what they’re seeing … I think that there might be a future organist here,” Buice said.
Read more in the Dec. 2-8, 2020 issue.