Salvaged pipe organ finds new home in Johnstown

JOHNSTOWN (AP) — Today, the church building at Vine and Levergood streets in downtown Johnstown is little more than an empty shell.

Most of its stained-glass windows have been removed and boarded up, and one of the few that remains has been shattered. Its garden is overgrown and tangled with weeds.

Still, at least one remnant of the former home of Johnstown’s First Christian Church has been saved from destruction. The leaders of St. Mark’s Episcopal Church in downtown Johnstown salvaged the church’s pipe organ earlier this summer, planning to install it in their own church building.

The Rev. Nancy Threadgill of St. Mark’s said Tuesday that the organ will soon sound for the first time in its new home.

On Monday, workers from Patrick J. Murphy & Associates, an organ-building firm based in Stowe, Montgomery County, began moving the organ’s pipes into St. Mark’s, beginning the two-week installation process.

Matt Farrell, a shop foreman for Patrick J. Murphy & Associates who is managing the St. Mark’s project, said the sound produced by the pipe organ will be noticeably superior to that produced by St. Mark’s old electronic organ.

“It’ll provide a deepness, a richness of sound, because you’re physically moving the air molecules through a pipe, rather than producing it with a tone generator,” Farrell said.

Threadgill said that St. Mark’s first began looking at purchasing a new pipe organ several years ago, soon after the Roman Catholic Diocese of Altoona-Johnstown closed several Johnstown churches.

“Our electric organ that we had at the time was reaching the point where it could not be fixed anymore,” Threadgill said.

The instrument was just so old, she explained, that many vital replacement parts were no longer being manufactured.

“Electric organs become obsolete very quickly,” she said.

However, the church’s plan to buy an organ from a closed Catholic church didn’t pan out. St. Mark’s congregation made do with its old electronic organ until earlier this year, when Threadgill got a phone call.

She learned that the old First Christian Church had been purchased at a tax sale and that the new owner was stripping the interior.

“He said we could have the organ for $1,000,” Threadgill said.

At such a cheap price, St. Mark’s jumped at the chance.

St. Mark’s new organ is “a very typical church pipe organ,” Farrell said.

It’s one of more than 10,000 similar instruments built by the defunct M.P. Moller Organ Co., formerly of Hagerstown, Maryland, before the company collapsed in 1992.

This particular organ is one of Moller’s earlier efforts, Farrell said. He believes it probably dates back to the 1920s or 1930s.

The first step of the project – removing the organ from its former home – took place in May.

“We moved it from its old location in a day, packed it all up and brought it back to our workshop here in Stowe,” Farrell said. There, workers washed the pipes and made a preliminary check of each pipe’s tone.

Workers also added two stops to the organ, expanding the range of sounds it can produce, and updated the organ’s control system to include modern computer-driven components, Farrell said.

At First Christian Church, the organ had used an electro-pneumatic action, meaning that an electric current and air pressure both worked together to produce sound. Now, however, an electronic control system will communicate signals from the organ’s console to the pipes.

The project also required some renovations to the church itself.

“Because of the difference between the two buildings in the space where the organ will go, we had to reconfigure the old layout to fit the new space,” Farrell said.

Carpenters redid the room where the pipes will go, a closet to the left of the altar, behind the location of the old organ. They had to tear down and rebuild some walls to accommodate the new organ’s pipes.

“As we fill the parts (of the organ) one by one into this very small chamber, there’s a very individual way you have to do it,” Farrell said. “You have to do it in a very set order in order for everything to fit in and go in the right places.”

“We’re hoping by the end of this week to have everything in and mechanically      functioning,” Farrell said.

After that step is finished, the workers will spend two or three days tuning the pipes and making sure they’re working together to produce, as Farrell put it, “a full, round sound.”

If all goes according to plan, the organ will make its St. Mark’s debut during a wedding on Dec. 3, Threadgill said. Its first Sunday services will be held the following day. Church officials are also planning a recital, tentatively scheduled for April 2017, to show off the organ.

“We want to let the people who were members of First Christian Church know that we have their organ,” Threadgill said. “If they want to come, listen to the organ and remember, they can. It was not lost – it has been reborn.”

“We didn’t change the color of the sound,” Farrell said. “It’ll sound very similar to what it sounded like at its previous home.”

The project’s $150,000 cost was mostly funded by individual donations from friends and neighbors of St. Mark’s, Threadgill said. While most of the necessary funds have been raised, the church is still accepting donations to fill the remaining funding gap. Those interested in donating should contact the church.

Richard Burkert, president and CEO of the Johnstown Area Heritage Association, lauded the project, saying that it is vital to preserve the “fabric” of Johnstown – its pipe organs and other artifacts as well as its historic buildings.

Threadgill hopes the new organ will be a boon to the community. She floated the idea of inviting local organ students to practice at St. Mark’s once the organ is installed.

“Even though it does have electronic parts, it should last for a long time,” she said. “The musical quality will be better, and it’ll provide us with the music we need.”

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Information from: The Tribune-Democrat, http://www.tribune-democrat.com

Copyright 2016 The Associated Press.