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Major tuneup

Famous organ, ca. 1948, is reconfigured, repaired and restored during recent Salt Lake Tabernacle renovation

While the Salt Lake Tabernacle was undergoing its recent seismic upgrade and renovation, its world-famous centerpiece, the distinctive pipe organ, was undergoing a renewal of its own.

Newly renovated Salt Lake Tabernacle interior is seen from unusual vantage point within and near the top of the encased pipes of the world famous Tabernacle Organ.
Newly renovated Salt Lake Tabernacle interior is seen from unusual vantage point within and near the top of the encased pipes of the world famous Tabernacle Organ. Photo: Photo by John Hart

Of necessity, the instrument had to be largely disassembled, preserved and protected while the work on the Tabernacle was progressing. But it also had to be reconfigured to accommodate the building's new seismic structure and remodeling, as well as cleaned, repaired and renovated to restore it to concert condition. This is according to representatives of the Rocky Mountain Organ Co. who performed the work and who described their efforts to a conference of pipe organ enthusiasts gathered April 20 in the Assembly Hall on Temple Square in Salt Lake City.

"When you realize what you've been asked to do is to protect what arguably might be the most recognizable pipe organ in the world, it gives pause for thought," said William S. Hesterman, company president, in his remarks at the Third American Classic Organ Symposium. "Also, when we realized the time constraints we were under, it gave even more pause for thought."

His company was not engaged until early January 2005, after the scope of the task became clear to Tabernacle project architects and organ curators on Temple Square.

"You can see that we had to figure out ways to creatively fast track this whole project," he said.

He expressed appreciation for the trades people involved in the Tabernacle restoration for their sensitivity in working around the organ. "Occasionally, we had to remind them that they were working inside a musical instrument," that it was not just a mechanical space, he noted.

refurbishing of Mormon tabernacle organ by Rocky Mountain Organ Co.
refurbishing of Mormon tabernacle organ by Rocky Mountain Organ Co. Photo: Photo courtesy Rocky Mountain Organ Co.

David Greer, project manager, said the project involved these aspects: protection, reconfiguring, cleaning, repairing and restoration. He illustrated his presentation with photos shot by company staff members, culled from some 8,000 visual images taken throughout the work.

Protection

Protecting the instrument involved disconnecting and removing the entire static wind system, the blowers and the blower room, the combination action closet, the organ console (where the organist sits to play the instrument) and the antiphonal division (the hidden organ pipes at the rear of the Tabernacle).

All vulnerable parts were removed, including wind lines and regulators, and 70 ranks, or approximately 4,200 pipes.

Open wind lines and framework were sealed with foam and plastic covering.

"First and foremost, in everything we did, we kept in mind the status of the instrument" and its "signature sound," said Brother Greer, a sound he first came to appreciate as a youth at home listening to an album of Tabernacle Organ music on a cheap record player, with which he found he could get fairly good fidelity by holding its two speakers, one to each ear.

He said the static wind system had to be removed because the building from the organ floor down was going to be demolished down two stories for the inclusion of a sub-basement for offices.

refurbishing of Mormon tabernacle organ by Rocky Mountain Organ Co.
refurbishing of Mormon tabernacle organ by Rocky Mountain Organ Co. Photo: Photo by John Hart

Brother Hesterman added, "The morning that we started actually demolishing the static wind system, David and I had an electric saw, ready to cut the first wind line, and we looked at each other as if to say, 'We have got to be nuts! We are about to kill the organ. We hope that we can bring it back to life.'"

Reconfiguring

"Second, we had to reconfigure the instrument to accommodate the new seismic structure and various remodeling efforts that were taking place in the building," Brother Greer explained.

This involved revisions to floor panels and walkways, relocation of wind lines and a ladder, modifications to the non-speaking facade pipes (some of the large, prominent pipes that are most visible to Tabernacle visitors), and installation of a new static wind system, including blowers that had to be lowered into place with a crane.

In the course of the reconfiguring, a decision was made to replace a primary organ regulator, because the old was in need of extensive repair. Tabernacle organ curator Robert Poll built a precision replica of the original. He also made a new curtain valve which doubles the original size of the inlet, making it perhaps the largest curtain valve in the world, Brother Greer said.

Cleaning

Brother Greer said the cleaning phase of the project involved removal of construction debris and hand washing of the entire organ structure. All 11,623 of the organ's pipes were washed, and repeated washings were necessary due to dust created from the Tabernacle renovation and construction.

refurbishing of Mormon tabernacle organ by Rocky Mountain Organ Co.
refurbishing of Mormon tabernacle organ by Rocky Mountain Organ Co. Photo: Photo by John Hart

Repair

"During the time the organ was out of service, there were some repairs done that really couldn't be done at any other time, as for the first time in its history it was out of service for two years," Brother Greer noted. "There were some broken wind lines and flanges that had to be repaired. Floors, stairs and walkways were patched and repainted."

In addition, many worn tuning scrolls on the organ pipes were repaired.

Restoration

The combination action closet and the organ console were reinstalled, with all of the intricate electrical wiring involved.

"Once we could actually play the notes of the organ from the console, we had to readjust the keys, because they had all been re-bushed," he said. "So we made up a little jig to set the keys to precisely the depth we wanted them, and just went through and set each one to fire precisely."

Then it was time to restore the pipes to their position, beginning with the facade pipes, followed by the main organ pipes and the antiphonal division at the rear of the hall.

"And Bill (Hesterman) had the unenviable task of taking the pipe trays and sorting out the pipes and making sure we got the right stuff at the right time," he said. "We set up a human chain and passed the pipes up the scaffold, and the organ began to take shape."

Because of the extensive handling of the pipes, the tuning slides had been moved, so it was necessary to retune the entire organ. "We did that while fighting with construction noise and temperature instability," Brother Greer said.

In addition, the pitch of the organ was raised to 440 vibrations per second, a standard concert pitch. "That required that a small number of pipes had to have some very judicious trimming done," Brother Greer said, "but it was successfully raised."

refurbishing of Mormon tabernacle organ by Rocky Mountain Organ Co.
refurbishing of Mormon tabernacle organ by Rocky Mountain Organ Co. Photo: Photo courtesy Rocky Mountain Organ Co.

Now, Brother Hesterman pointed out in an interview, the Orchestra at Temple Square and other Tabernacle performers will no longer have to tune down to match the pitch of the organ.

So an old friend is back in service, something of a partner to the relatively new organ in the Conference Center. Asked which organ he most enjoys playing, Tabernacle organist Richard Elliott replied, "It's like asking which of your children is your favorite; you can't really pick a favorite, you like lots of things about all of them.

"But for heavy bass and lots of raw power, the Conference Center organ really is strong that way, and has a lot of orchestral effects you don't have on the Tabernacle organ, like a plucked bass and glockenspiel.

"This (Tabernacle) organ is really suave. If you want to bask in its glow, this organ has almost a halo to it. We hear the voices of the pioneers in some of the sounds, and it has a lot of associations that are very deep and tender for us."

Not to mention, added Brother Hesterman, the organ is complemented by the famous Tabernacle acoustics.

refurbishing of Mormon tabernacle organ by Rocky Mountain Organ Co.
refurbishing of Mormon tabernacle organ by Rocky Mountain Organ Co. Photo: Photo courtesy Rocky Mountain Organ Co.
refurbishing of Mormon tabernacle organ by Rocky Mountain Organ Co.
refurbishing of Mormon tabernacle organ by Rocky Mountain Organ Co. Photo: Photo courtesy Rocky Mountain Organ Co.
refurbishing of Mormon tabernacle organ by Rocky Mountain Organ Co.
refurbishing of Mormon tabernacle organ by Rocky Mountain Organ Co. Photo: Photo courtesy Rocky Mountain Organ Co.
refurbishing of Mormon tabernacle organ by Rocky Mountain Organ Co.
refurbishing of Mormon tabernacle organ by Rocky Mountain Organ Co. Photo: Photo courtesy Rocky Mountain Organ Co.
THIS PHOTO IS EMBARGOED FROM USE UNTIL 4 P.M. ON APRIL 1, 2007------The historic pipe organ in the newly reconstructed  LDS Tabernacle on Temple Square Friday, March 30, 2007 in Salt Lake City, Utah. The Tabernacle was given a seismic upgrade and refurbished inside and out. August Miller/ Deseret Morning News
THIS PHOTO IS EMBARGOED FROM USE UNTIL 4 P.M. ON APRIL 1, 2007------The historic pipe organ in the newly reconstructed LDS Tabernacle on Temple Square Friday, March 30, 2007 in Salt Lake City, Utah. The Tabernacle was given a seismic upgrade and refurbished inside and out. August Miller/ Deseret Morning News Photo: August Miller/Deseret Morning Ne
Cleaned, repaired and tuned, organ pipes in loft behind facade are among 4,200 pipes   in 70 ranks that were part of major organ renewal completed during Tabernacle refurbishment.
Cleaned, repaired and tuned, organ pipes in loft behind facade are among 4,200 pipes in 70 ranks that were part of major organ renewal completed during Tabernacle refurbishment. Photo: Photo courtesy Rocky Mountain Organ Co.

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