A New Organ for St. John’s Church

Background:
St. John’s Episcopal Church has a long history of loving care for its church building and grounds. Even in this modest summer chapel, all enjoy a lovely Louis Comfort Tiffany window, hand-stitched kneelers, brick paths winding through thoughtfully planted gardens, and the remains of an E.M. Skinner Organ (installed in 1929) once considered the height of American musical craftsmanship. After careful consideration, and in respect to the long-term stewardship of the church’s physical resources, the vestry decided to replace the instrument with a pipe organ which will last for generations.

The current Skinner organ was a very fine instrument, but almost 90 years of damp, salty, seaside climate and unheated winters have taken their toll. Repairs were increasingly costly and less effective.

Details of the New Organ:
A pipe organ produces sound in much the same way as the human voice – by passing pressurized wind through a tunnel or pipe. Congregations feel better supported and in turn sing more robustly when contributing their own breath to that of a pipe organ. The congregation is literally surrounded by its own distinctive and supportive voice.

The replacement organ, being built by Bigelow Organ Co. of Salt Lake City, Utah, is known as a “tracker” with mechanical, rather than electrical, connections between the keys and the pipes. The wooden connections are not vulnerable to corrosion and can readily be replaced. Further, no components will run through the St. John’s Church basement as they had with the Skinner organ. Everything will be centrally contained above ground.

Since 1978 Bigelow Organ Co. has been building “solid, reliable tracker instruments that excel in musical, architectural, and tactile qualities”. St. John’s new organ will be their 42nd, hence the name Bigelow Opus 42. Tracker organs have been built for centuries and with proper care can last indefinitely.

Process:
The first step from old to new came in mid-September 2017 with the removal from the church building of the Skinner Opus 799 and all its assorted pipes and parts. The Skinner removal effort was coordinated by a Boston-based crew including Joe Sloane, owner of Joe Sloane Pipe Organs along with Amory Atkins and Dean Conroy from the Organ Clearing House. Mike Bigelow and his wife Beth arrived from Salt Lake City to collect some important pipework from the Skinner that will be re-purposed into the new instrument.

Joe Sloane’s company provides organ maintenance and restoration services to churches, institutions, and private clients, and works collaboratively with established organ builders to provide first-class project management and restoration services.

Since 1961, the Organ Clearing House has helped churches, schools, and private individuals acquire high-quality vintage pipe organs and preserve venerable instruments from abandonment or destruction while championing the marvelous heritage of American pipe organ building. In addition, they offer a full range of support services to the organ building trade.

Joe, Amory, and Dean worked together to dismantle the Skinner and each part that could be repurposed was carefully packed for transport either to Boston or to Salt Lake City. The wealth of knowledge these gentlemen have about organs, and their willingness to share it with others, is proof positive they love what they do.

The Skinner Company’s organs were some of the finest ever built and all successful restorations of Skinner organs require a substantial cache of vintage parts. Many of the salvaged components including bellows, swell shades and pipes that were shipped to Boston may conceivably find new homes in restored Skinner organs across the United States.

Mike and Beth returned to Salt Lake City with a truck filled with important wood pipes of all sizes, several sets of tin alloy pipes and the original St. John’s facade which will be incorporated into the new organ’s casework. In April 2018 the new organ will arrive from Utah and be installed in the church in time for the summer season.

Bigelow rendering for new Opus 42 organ at St. John’s

Dismantling Day 1: September 14, 2017
Photos by Jane Ahrens
(Click any photo to see a large image or to scroll through the gallery.)

Dismantling Day 2: September 15, 2017

A Chat With Michael Bigelow, Builder of Pipe Organs

A Chat With Michael Bigelow, Builder of Pipe Organs

April 6, 2016
Salt Lake City Weekly
By Lance Gudmundsen

Saltwater taffy, nutritional supplements, rocket motors … and pipe organs. Yes, add the “King of Instruments” to the list of Made in Utah products. Michael Bigelow, founder of Bigelow & Co., builds those pipe organs for a living. Bigelow describes his craft below.

When did you start Bigelow & Co.?
Bigelow began business in 1978 in Provo. We moved to American Fork in 1984 to the surplus LDS Second Ward building dating to 1903. We’ve been here ever since.

Tell us about your shop.
We have 10,000 square feet with five full-time and several part-time employees.

Where and from whom did you learn organ building?
When I completed training with Abbott and Sieker in Los Angeles and John Brombaugh in Ohio, I moved to Utah and set up my own organ-building shop. I’ve never done anything else.

How many instruments has Bigelow & Co. built?
We’re currently completing our Opus 38, or in other words, our 38th instrument. The largest is Opus 17-56 ranks at Victory Lutheran Church in Mesa, Ariz. The smallest is Opus 4-3 ranks at BYU-Idaho in Rexburg.

How many pipes in a “rank”? A rank of pipes numbers 56-61 pipes depending on the number of keys on the keyboard.

Where can people hear organs with the Bigelow nameplate in Salt Lake City?
There are three Bigelow instruments in Salt Lake City: St. Mark’s Episcopal Cathedral (231 E. 100 South), St. Ambrose Catholic Church (2315 S. Redondo Ave.) and First United Methodist Church (203 S. 200 East).

What is the price range on your projects?
Most expensive was $1.3 million, and least expensive was $25,000.

What’s the most difficult part of building an instrument?
The wind chests and pipes require the most labor, with the action and the casework a close second. Then there’s the wind system.

How many hours are spent building an organ?
We invested 21,500 hours on the instrument at St. Mark’s Cathedral.

Electronic digital organs are getting more and more realistic. They’re not your grandmother’s Hammond anymore. Will they ever replace real pipes?
Electronic substitutes are already replacing pipe organs in many churches and other venues. However, it’s been my experience that the vast majority of people can tell the difference and prefer the sound of a real pipe organ.

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