Saturday, January 31, 2015

Andrew Carnegie and the mighty Pilcher (Opus 543)

There's little doubt that those present when First United Methodist Church's new Pilcher pipe organ began to speak publicly for the first time --- during a concert (35-cent admission; proceeds to the organ fund) on Thursday evening, Aug. 9, 1906 --- would recognize their instrument now, fitted neatly into an arched alcove in the east wall of the sanctuary. Or the stained glass. Or the shape of the room itself.

But much has changed in 108 years, including the instrument --- although its case remains for the most part unaltered.

When architect Samuel A Bullard (of Springfield, Illinois) designed the beautiful new Bedford stone building that houses the congregation and the organ, completed and dedicated in July of 1900, he arranged it to seat in excess of a thousand people. So in 1906, the arch on the left  of the sanctuary would have contained two-story wooden doors that slid open to reveal overflow seating in the Sunday School room beyond (now permanently open to the sanctuary) and a railed gallery above.

There would have been a smaller platform in front of the organ where its console and a few chairs for choir members were located, nothing at all like the very large choir loft/musicians' gallery that now stretches all along the sanctuary's east wall. The platform that houses the pulpit, lectern and altar/communion table would have been much smaller --- and the electronics would have baffled that long-ago crowd.

Those sparkling white walls probably would have puzzled our Victorian ancestors, accustomed to lavish patterns and intense colors, too. According to The Patriot of July 12, 1900, the walls of the auditorium were covered then by frescoing done by G.H. Schaubacher of Springfield, Ill., that was "a masterpiece of artistic work. The designs are principally geometrical and floral and the colors blend so perfectly that they are restful to the eye and will be a 'thing of beauty and a joy forever' to all who enter."

But change is nothing new in the United Methodist sanctuary. It's been a work in progress, altered to fit changing needs, almost from the beginning.

Architect Bullard had designed the new church with a pipe organ in mind, providing the alcove in the east wall of the auditorium for it. But he had not anticipated an organ of the Pilcher's scale, so he placed high in that alcove a rose window now entirely blocked by the organ case. The window, now visible only from the outside, commemorates the Rev. G.W. Roderick, pastor at the time planning and fund-raising for the new church began, who died on Dec. 2, 1898, at age 40 after a very brief illness (his remains were taken to Fairview Cemetery at Galion in Crawford County, Ohio, for burial). Roderick is the only First United Methodist pastor to die while serving the Chariton congregation.

An organ had not been installed as part of the building project because money was short. The building cost roughly $25,000 to build and equip and more than $10,000 in indebtedness remained when it was dedicated.

So the organ had to wait and, when it arrived, necessitated some remodeling of the almost-new building. The Chariton Leader of July 12, 1906, reported that "The decorators at the Methodist Church have finished their task and gone away and the building is now ready for the big pipe organ to be put in place." On Nov. 15, 1906, another Leader article reported that "The ladies of the M.E. church ... have in hand now the raising of about $800 necessitated through the purchase of the pipe organ and remodeling the building in order to make room for it."


Samuel M. Greene, then editor and publisher of The Chariton Herald and 50 years later still alive, kicking and writing in California, claimed credit for launching the drive that led to acquisition of the 1906 pipe organ --- by writing to Andrew Carnegie.

Philanthropist Carnegie is far better known for the public libraries he helped to build --- including Chariton's --- so it's been kind of forgotten that he also helped to purchase about 8,000 pipe organs for churches and public buildings across the United States during the same years.

During late January, 1906, Greene received a letter signed by James Bertram, Carnegie's personal secretary, which read, "Dear Sir: Responding to your appeal, Mr. Carnegie will be glad to provide the last half of the cost of an organ for your church at the price of $3,000.00, when the first half has been collected and payment of the organ becomes due."

William A. Eikenberry of Chariton and his sister, Sara Sigler of Indianola, each agreed to contribute $500 in memory of their mother, Lizzie Jane (Alexander) Eikenberry, who had died during 1901.

The remaining $500 was "easy to raise," Green recalled during 1957. The Methodist Ladies Aid, which did most of the raising, most likely remembered that phase of the project differently. 


The congregation ordered its new instrument promptly --- from Henry Pilcher & Sons, a venerable builder of organs then located in Louisville, Kentucky.

Pilcher records show that the organ (Opus 543) was finished and installed during August of 1906; that it had a 61-note manual compass (C-c4) and a 30-note pedal compass (C-f1), 24 stops and tubular-pneumatic action. And that it was equipped with an "Orgoblo."

"Tubular-pneumatic action" refers to the lead tubing that connected each key, pedal key and stop on the organ console to the windchest; changes in air pressure within the tubes regulating the valves in the windchest that controlled the flow of wind into each pipe.

An Orgoblo was among the latest organ technology. Manufactured by the Spencer Turbine Co. of Hartford, Connecticut, it was an electrically-powered blower that provided the wind needed to allow pipes to speak.

United Methodist lore contains a story that the Pilcher originally was powered by hand --- by someone inside the organ case pumping away on what would have resembled a pump handle. The fact the new church was wired for electricity and lighted by electricity --- plus the Orgoblo as original equipment --- suggest that this story may not be accurate.


It appears that the new organ arrived in Chariton during early July. The Leader of June 21, 1906, reported that "the new pipe organ will arrive next week and be placed in the M.E. church as soon as it is possible to do so." On Aug. 2, 1906, The Herald reported that "the new Pilcher pipe organ at the M.E. church was completed last Saturday."

Because Chautauqua was under way in Chariton during the first week of August that year, however, it was decided to wait until Thursday evening, Aug. 9, for the opening concert --- and to not use it otherwise except to pracice until after that date.

The concert went off as planned in a "comfortably filled" church with Prof. F.E. Barrows of the Simpson College Conservatory of Music as principal organist. There were many vocalists, too, --- including the Methodist Episcopal Choir, soloists Willie Elise Brown and Edith Larimer of Chariton, Mrs. Charles (Sue Copeland) Whicher of Carlsbad, New Mexico, and Dr. W.L. Anderson of Chariton. Mrs. C.C. Mayhew, the congregation's regular organist, accompanied the vocalists and "acquitted herself with much credit and showed a mastery of the organ's technicalities."

A special guest performer was Mortimer Wilson, then director of the theory department at the University of Nebraka, who performed "Wieniawski's Romance from Second Concerto" on violin accompanied by Barrows at the organ, according to a report in The Patriot of August 16.

Wilson was a hometown boy, born into a poor Chariton family but with considerable musical talent. He became a protege of Jessie (Mallory) Thayer, who funded his musical education and remained his mentor for so long as she lived. Mortimer went on to compose and conduct in Atlanta, New York City --- and Hollywood.

The Patriot reporter devoted much ink to the quality of the human performances, but didn't have much to say about the organ itself, other than "It is a splendid instrument: as perfect as one of its size can be." And it needs to be kept in mind that the Pilcher (Opus 543) was not then and is not now especially large by pipe organ standards, although fairly typical of what the Pilcher company was building for churches at the time and suitable for a space the size of First Methodist. Pilcher Opus 542, built for a Baptist Church in Dallas, Texas, for example, had 28 stops; Opus 544, for a Baptist church in Fulton, Kentucky, 13 stops.


It's difficult to track modifications made to the organ during last century --- there does not seem to be an "organ history" file at the church. But some things can be pieced together from newspaper reports and church history references.

Some changes were made 10 years after installation, most notably relocation of the console, most likely placed originally at the base of the organ case.

The Herald Patriot reported on March 16, 1916, that "an expert has been busy the past two weeks, over-hauling the pipe organ. Important changes have been made. The keyboard has been placed on the main floor of the auditorium, thus enlarging the platform and giving needed room for the large choir. New chairs have been added for the choir. The organ will be ready for use next Sunday."

The organ's "tubular-pneumatic" action allowed the console to be located at some distance from the pipes, but reworking the links would have been a considerable task. There also was some risk, although not great when the move was short, that greater distance between pipes and console would lead to a more sluggish performance.

The next major work on the organ was undertaken in 1930, although it's not known everything that entailed. The Leader of Feb. 18, 1930, reported, "Considerable work is being done on the pipe organ at the Methodist church by the Milliman Organ Co., of Des Moines, with H.J. Milliman personally supervising the work. The sum of $4,500 is being expended on the instrument and when the work is completed it will be fully equipped electrically and one of the very best in this part of Iowa. This organ company recently installed a wonderfully fine organ at the Catholic cathedral at Des Moines."

The church sanctuary was extensively renovated, commencing in 1947 --- but there are no references to changes in the organ itself at that time. Much changed around it, however --- this was when the giant sliding doors in the north wall were removed and repurposed and the gallery/balcony enclosed to form second-floor Sunday school space.

During 1964, according to church histories, a new console was installed at a cost of $3,000 and a trompette stop of 61 pipes as well as cathedral chimes installed at a cost of $2,600.

During 1977, the organ was extensively reworked again. According to a church history, "the windchests were discarded as was the pumper .... Old slider chests were replaced, and a new silicon power supply and blower located in the organ case."

When that project was complete, according to the history,  the organ had "17 registers, 19 ranks and 1,037 pipes." This work was undertaken by the Temple Organ Co. of St. Joseph, Missouri.


The old organ continues to play a role in worship at First Methodist, but there's also a worship band I believe as well as a bell choir. In 1951, when First Methodist celebrated its centennial, there was a 40-member vested choir directed by Mrs. Leo Hoegh, later first lady of Iowa. A traditional choir of that size no longer is possible. Nor is it always possible to find someone qualified to play the organ --- a problem for many congregations. Stan Vander Woude, an accomplished pianist who taught himself to play the big instrument, was principal organist for some years. I'm told Kim Williams plays the Pilcher most Sundays now.

There are two pipe organs in Chariton now --- at First Methodist and First Presbyteran. Other pipe organs once were housed at old St. Andrew's (destroyed when that building was demolished in 1955) and First Lutheran, replaced with a digital organ after a fire in the console during 2002. I'm ready for an "organ Sunday" when the community is invited to move from church to church and hear them both as they rattle the stained glass and shake the light fixtures.


Anonymous said...

Do you know of any existing pictures of the Methodist Church sanctuary prior to the 1947 remodeling that show the room to the north, sliding doors, and balcony?

Frank D. Myers said...

That's part of the problem involved in figuring out the original layout. There don't seem to be any interior photos, but I'll bet there are --- somewhere.

Anonymous said...

Frank, the pipe organ at First Lutheran was replaced about 2002 with an electronic organ. A short in the consul caused a fire that resulted in extensive damage. It was decided it was to expensive to repair.

Delores Ranshaw

Anonymous said...

correction--"too expensive". DR

Frank D. Myers said...

Thanks Delores --- I wondered about that, but someone assured me a new pipe organ was installed. Now we know! I've corrected the paragraph where it was mentioned.