June 06, 2020
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Historic organ is rescued in Bangor

Community Author: Robin Clifford Wood
Post Date:
Matthew Chabe | BDN
Matthew Chabe | BDN

In the reverberant high-ceilinged sanctuary of the Unitarian Universalist Society of Bangor this Sunday evening, an unusually powerful musical uplift will flood the room for the first time in a decade. The UUSB’s 100-year-old organ was given a terminal diagnosis several years back, but a series of dedicated visionaries and a collection of hard-working students from the University of Maine have brought this musical wonder back to life.

It was a long journey besieged by uncertainty. A benefit concert held this Sunday, October 21, at 7:00 p.m. will be a fitting tribute to that journey’s final success.

The organ in question is an E. W. Lane tubular pneumatic pipe organ, installed around 1912 in the “new” church building that was built after a devastating fire in 1911. The members of UUSB looked into fixing the beloved antique, but the cost of a restoration would be tens of thousands of dollars. It would be cheaper to replace it, they were told. Neither option was economically possible for the mid-sized congregation, but they couldn’t bear to just tear out the old organ. So there it sat.

It so happened that Chris Packard, the president of the UUSB council in 2016, heard about a restoration project at the Maine Forest and Logging Museum at Leonard’s Mills, since his wife, Jill, was the director at that time. An ancient log-hauler had been dredged up from the mud of the Sebec Lake region in the 1930s or ‘40s, and a team of University of Maine students were working on restoring parts of it so that museum visitors could actually see it run in public again.

“If they could fix that,” Packard said, “I thought maybe they could fix our organ.” So he contacted the Mechanical Engineering Technology department at UMaine with the idea.

Part of each student’s requirement in that department is to complete a capstone project during their final year. The program instructors select 7–10 projects each year that students may choose from, then assign teams of four to each project. Generally instructors identify projects on campus or by reaching out to local industry, but sometimes they get a request from a local organization. “We enjoy the community outreach,” said Berube. Two instructors from the program, Keith Berube and Brett Ellis, were intrigued by the organ restoration idea and came to inspect the organ at UUSB.

Berube and Ellis felt the organ project was doable and could fill a year’s work, so it went on the list. Four seniors ended up on the class of 2018’s “Team 7”: Aaron Dallman, Evan Hanzl, Sam McDonald, and Justin Willis. Berube was their project advisor. “None of these guys knew about organs, though some were musicians,” said Berube. One of the first things students have to learn is the extensive research and background study that must come before any hands-on work. “They often just want to start building something or tearing it apart right away,” Berube said. That lesson became very clear to Team 7.

Sam McDonald, the student team leader, said it took half of a year to figure out how “this voodoo organ” worked and the other half to fix it. What the students saw when they first took a look inside the organ’s working parts was nearly two miles of metal tubing. It was like “a big mass of spaghetti,” said McDonald, and it was leaking air like a sieve.

They started their research on Google, but there wasn’t much there. Tubular pneumatic organs were only built around the turn of the 20th century during a brief historical period of organ construction (about 40 years). They were the interim version between purely mechanical and electrically powered organs. Documentation was scarce, said Justin Willis: “People who worked on this organ were a guarded group that didn’t write a lot down.” So the students dug into the dusty archives of the university’s Fogler Library. One of their sources hadn’t been checked out since 1971. Another came through inter-library loan from California. Many of the organ’s mechanisms were highly specialized. “We had to learn a whole new language,” said Willis.

Once Team 7 had educated themselves about the organ and presented their findings and recommendations to the church, they began the work of repairing hundreds of air leaks with a specialized glue called “Fish Glue.” They had to maneuver their bodies inside the tall, narrow space crammed with parts. “It was like doing yoga inside an organ,” said McDonald. Sometimes one student would have to hang upside down, reaching blindly, while another student below guided their hand.

Another lengthy detective job was locating a source for the highly specialized leather that the organ uses for its valves. Over time, the old leather had dried and cracked, causing many of the leaks. “We began looking for leather in September, and finally found a supplier in March,” said Willis. It was a thin, specialized leather called zephyr-skin, and it was the only significant expense of the entire project. One of the most astonishing parts of the project for the grateful members of UUSB was that the cost of the project was fully covered by the $150 stipend that each capstone student gets from the University. The yearlong project, in the end, cost the church absolutely nothing.

Little by little, the students patched up the leaks, installed the zephyr skin, and periodically checked the 660 different pipe/key combinations across the organ’s three keyboards (two for the hands, one for the feet). They would push a key, check the sound, find more problems, and keep working. Once, near completion, they powered up the organ and were barraged by a wild cacophony that Willis compared to the swelling roar of the THX intro for Lucasfilm. Oops. Every note had opened at once. Something was too tight. Back to work.

When asked about their greatest moment of triumph during the year, Willis and McDonald both identified the same event last spring. They were exhausted after finals week, studying all day then working in the church until late at night. After a final test of all the individual keys, they thought they might be done, but they still weren’t certain the organ would perform for an organist. They asked Paul Griffin, a recent music graduate specializing in the organ, to come and test it out. Griffin’s hands and feet flew over the keys, filling the room with beautiful sound. The students of Team 7 got shivers of wonder and excitement. It actually works!

John Arimond is both an engineer at the University of Maine and a member of UUSB. He became a primary point person between the students of Team 7 and the church during the yearlong project. He confessed that he had concerns about the project reaching completion by the target date of May 2018, but the competence and dedication of the students and their advisor were phenomenal, he said. “As soon as we knew we’d have a working organ, we knew we had to have a party,” said Arimond. He helped a team of church members to put together the rededication benefit concert to celebrate the organ project this Sunday.

It was an extraordinary gift that a team of engineering students provided to UUSB, and the organ’s music will be a perpetual reminder of that gift, starting with Sunday’s concert. The service aspect of their work is not lost on Team 7. When asked if this project will affect the students’ future careers, Willis said, “Well, we won’t be professional organ repairers, but we saw how engineering can be used to help the community. Some people say engineering is just a way to make wealth, but this showed we can help folks right here in Maine. We can make our local community better.”

The concert will be a rare musical opportunity for our local community. Two local organists, Kay Eames and Clayton Rogers, will be performing, in addition to vocalist Molly Webster and the University’s collegiate chorale directed by Webb Parker. Concert admission is free, but donations will be accepted. This newly restored treasure will require ongoing maintenance, and the church hopes to start a dedicated fund that will take care of the organ for years to come.