Things to Consider

Preservation and Protection of Church Organs: Practical Tips before the Work Begins

June 09, 2008


In my article, “Preservation of Historic Churches: Assessing the Overall Project Scope as the First Step," I wrote about the steps to take when planning a church restoration project. In essence, the message was to assess the entire facility and prioritize the work to implement it from the outside in, addressing building envelope problems, such as leaking roofs and deteriorated masonry, to ensure that interior work done too soon is not damaged by leaks later. Once the outside of the building has been repaired, work can prudently begin inside. However, there is one more major -- and expensive -- item that needs the same protective attention, the organ.

Church organs are complex and sensitive instruments. There are many different types, each with their inherent and valued characteristics, and this article will not attempt to identify them or how they should be restored. Rather, I will address things that should be considered so that the organ can be protected from adverse effects that can result from construction workCrane Lifting the Organ. The best source for information on how to protect your church’s organ is usually with the local company that services it and/or the original manufacturer (if still in existence). They generally know the organ better than anyone and can advise you concerning the steps to take and the related costs.

First, if a major interior rehabilitation project is going to take place AND the organ is also going to be restored, schedule the construction work first and the organ work last, if possible. Dust is the enemy of church organs, and construction projects are sources of incredible amounts of dust. Particularly heavy dust-generating activities include plaster and gypsum board sanding and masonry saw-cutting. The console and pipes must be protected from direct damage (being bumped, dropped on, etc.); and the valves, wind chambers, and other sensitive parts should be wrapped or sealed against excess dust. However, this is not as critical when the construction work is done first, since they will be completely cleaned later when the construction is done and the organ is restored.

If the organ must be restored or a new one installed BEFORE a major interior construction project, sealing it off from dust becomes more critical. The organ servicing company or manufacturer can best advise on how this should be done and what kind of costs to budget. The work and related costs then must be included in the overall project, and it is advisable also to have a contingency for back-up cleaning, just in case.

If proper protective steps are not taken, these can be expensive lessons to learn. On one project that involved minor masonry saw-cutting well away from an organ that had recently been cleaned, the contractor decided not to seal it. The resulting dust required another $45,000 cleaning, paid for by the contractor. On another project where an addition was being built adjacent toCramped Conditionsthe sanctuary, a sub-contractor compromised the negative pressure dust barrier, letting in a large amount of dust and causing an expensive cleaning of not just the organ but the entire sanctuary that was not originally part of the work.

If the organ itself is being restored, there are a number of things that should also be considered. Sometimes temperature and humidity differences from one side of a church to another can cause tonal differences and/or tuning problems in the pipes. At the large Basilica of St. Mary in Minneapolis, Minnesota, the facility director placed temperature monitors within the large, identical pipe enclosures on the east and west walls and discovered up to a twelve degree difference between the two. During restoration, small, low-speed fans were placed in the enclosures to assure an even flow of air within, and the temperature differential is now two degrees. Humidity can also sometimes have a similar effect. Some organ playability issues became less of a problem after the Basilica’s leaky steam heating system was replaced by a hot water system and the building was air conditioned a number of years ago. The humidity swings and playability issues were reduced before the organ was even restored.

Other practical and safety issues come into play when restoring an organ, as well, particularly a large one. Pipe enclosures are generally crowded, difficult to get to and dark. Access ladders, if exposed, should be safe and designed in such a way so that children or other unauthorized persons cannot ascend them. They should be OSHA (in the U.S., the Occupational Safety and Access Ladders Health Administration) compliant if they extend to a certain height above the ground, and there should be safe places to sit or stand when opening access doors. Inside, lights activated by a switch near the access door are a must; and if the pipe chamber is multi-tiered, there must be safe ways of moving around within on walkways and internal ladders.

The physical work involved with actually restoring or installing an organ or its parts also has to be considered. The width of doorways into the church, the aisles within, and the bearing capacity of the floor structure all may be an issue when dealing with a large instrument. Again at the Basilica of St. Mary, the contractor had to find a lift that could fit through a six-foot wide double door, yet be tall enough to lift 32 foot tall pipes into the choir loft. Once the equipment was found, the structural engineer had to confirm that the 100-year-old floor could safely carry the load.

In summary, when planning any interior construction work in a church, make sure that the organ is addressed even if no work is planned for it. It must be adequately protected to prevent damage and dust. If the organ itself is going to be restored, it should be done, if at all possible, after everything else is complete. Finally, the means of accessing and maintaining the organ need to be as safe as possible to make it as easy as possible and to prevent accidents. Easier access should also equate to lower ongoing maintenance costs.

Photos provided by Chuck Liddy

Chuck Liddy, AIA, NCARB is a Principal with the firm of Miller Dunwiddie Architecture in Minneapolis, Minnesota. They have worked on numerous historic churches, including the Basilica of St. Mary in Minneapolis and the Cathedral of St. Paul.


Preservation of Historic Churches: Assessing the Overall Project Scope as the First Step

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