The antique pipe organ in the Original Congressional Church had been pleading for help for some time. While functioning well for an 86-year old musical instrument, problems were emerging. The pipe organ, which was originally built to provide accompaniment to silent movies and live performances had served the church well since it arrived at its current home in Wrentham back in 1948. But, despite the loving care and regular maintenance the organ received, it started to show its age. Dead notes began to emerge on the keyboard, a rank of pipes had become completely unusable, and several of the pipes that could be used needed a good cleaning or some metal work. Despite all the needed work, the organ was still providing the music at services, weddings, funerals and even concerts. At least it was until last month when it finally fell silent. An old leather gasket that formed a seam in a main reservoir which fills with air, blew out, making the organ unusable; at least for the moment.
The problem with the gasket can be repaired, and the planned restoration will move forward this summer. Most of the work will be done on the actual chamber the pipes are housed in. Bits of paint and plaster have been falling into the pipes from the chamber ceiling. This is a major problem particularly for the reed pipes. That’s one of the big reasons the organ has developed dead notes. “If a little chip of something like paint gets in there, it doesn’t play and that’s when you get dead notes,” explains Marjorie Kellner, the organist and music director for the Original Congressional Church. Kellner has been playing the organ since 1980 and she knows all its quirks. “I won’t use a particular rank of pipes if I know I’m going to encounter the dead notes.”
It’s that knowledge of the organ and ability to improvise around a problem is something Kellner has been been doing since she first started playing the organ. Back in 1981 the combination action on the organ, a feature that gives the organist the ability to change the tonal colors quickly had failed right before Easter. “I rely on the combination action for quick changes,” Kellner says. “I had to change the music.”
Despite the issues that crop up playing an instrument that was built in the 1920s, the organ is actually an excellent instrument. “One of the reasons I’ve been at the church so long is the organ,” Kellner says. “The organ is the gem of this situation.”
She says the substitutes that come play the organ often prefer it over other ones in the area. “The organ is really comfortable to play as far as its layout,” Kellner says. “When everything is working, it works very well and stays in tune reasonably well.”
The organ, an Opus 1457, was built in East Hartford, CT by the Austin Organ Company. It was originally installed in the Strand Theatre, in New Britian, CT in the fall of 1926. The original cost was $14,500. Today, the replacement value is around $600,000. The organ has 970 pipes in 13 ranks, two swell chambers with swell engines and shutters and three keyboards in the console. The organ operates on 10 pounds per square inch of air pressure which is generated by a 5 hp, 1200 rpm Woods motor connected to an air impeller. There was a major maintenance effort in 1986 that replaced the electro-mechanical moving parts and installed new leathers on the pipes.
The restoration work on the organ will start in June and it will provide accompaniment at services once again later this summer. The church is raising funds for the restoration work by having people sponsor a pipe in the memory of loved ones. The pipes aren’t visible to the public but a detailed list is being kept of who sponsored what pipes. The sponsorship is only $20 and there are nearly 1,000 different pipes with unique sounds to choose.
While the work is being done, the services at the Original Congressional Chruch will still have music. There is a Yahamma studio piano that is being used in the sanctuary where the organ is housed. “In the summer time we tend to be outside or in the Fellowship Hall,” Kellner says. “For those services we have an electronic keyboard that has different kinds of sounds on it. A big difficulty is if we have a wedding scheduled in the sanctuary. So, if they want organ sounds, we’ll move the keyboard. We’ll go with what we have. We’re lucky to have a good piano in the sanctuary.”
The fact that the gasket blew, silencing the organ temporarily did force the cancellation of the June organ concert. Richard W. Hill was to perform light classical music on the church’s organ this month. The work on the organ is scheduled for completion this summer and while problems will undoubtedly crop up from time to time, there is every hope the organ will continue to be the gem of the music program at the Original Congressional Church.