Swift Memorial Organ Restoration 2014
November 23, 2014
In a short recital of works to demonstrate the improved capabilities of the splendid Swift Memorial Organ, Dr. David Wagner rendered a magnificent dedicatory performance on the restored instrument, following the Sunday worship service on November 23, 2014. The program, with active links to video recordings, may be found at here, along with biographical information about Dr. Wagner and a picture of the upgraded console.
Saving a Michigan Treasure
by Edward Kingins
Director of Music
The Swift Memorial Organ at Fort Street is approaching its 100th birthday this year. Built originally by the Wangerin-Weikhardt Organ Works in Milwaukee, Wisconsin, the organ has undergone renovations at various stages of its lifetime.
Much has changed in 100 years, although many of the interior parts of the organ, and most of the pipes, are from the original instrument. A new console was added in 1953 by the Moeller Company of Hagerstown, Maryland, and various changes were made by local service people over the years, with varying degrees of success. What has not changed is the basic electrical wiring of the instrument. The organ will need to be retrofitted soon with new keyboards and drawknobs.
Presently only a very small portion of the organ (less than fifteen percent) is even playable due to the condition of worn-out and antiquated switching systems that date from the time when regular AC current was not as stable as it is today. The new switching system will be of solid state design, the way all electrically controlled pipe organs are presently built and connected. Further, tonal changes that were ill-advised but thought necessary at the time, will be reversed so that the organ can be heard more in its original condition.
Those words appeared in the 2013 Messiah concert program and were written by David Wagner, who was the organist for that performance and also for several of our very first Messiah concerts. His knowledge of and experience with the Fort Street instrument spans close to four decades.
As most Fort Streeters know by now, our instrument is in need of and is receiving some long-awaited restoration. One of the reasons more work has not been done until now relates to the completion of our new roof. There have been occasions in the past when roof leaks endangered the instrument so the decision to do major restoration was postponed until the roof was completed.
In anticipation of our impending roof work, David Wigton, a prominent Michigan organ builder who has worked with many of the area’s best-known instruments, was contacted last year to do a survey and proposal of work on the Swift Memorial Organ. The results of the survey and ensuing proposal follow.
Our report (February 2013) outlined the general state of the organ and focused on the need to rebuild the 100-year-old primary actions for the windchests. That rebuilding phase began in March, when we rebuilt the primary for the Choir division. This proposal focuses on the need to modernize the organ’s operation with a solid state relay system.
The Swift Memorial Organ has four manual keyboards and a pedal keyboard. The console controls sixty ranks, for a total of about 3,500 pipes. The windchests that the pipes rest on are operated by electro-pneumatic action. That is, each pipe has a pneumatic valve under it which is actuated by an electromagnet. These magnets are controlled in turn by signals from the console key and drawknob switches. The console itself is also pneumatic, in that its combination action (or memory presets) requires wind pressure to operate.
The organ console can be thought of as the “command center” of the instrument. The existing relay system, which (as we described earlier) is a hodge-podge of electric and electro-pneumatic switches, is the interface between the console and the windchests. These old switches, with their multiple moving parts and attrition-prone materials, are responsible for a great deal of the organ’s problems.
The answer to this dilemma is the installation of a solid state relay to operate the windchest actions. These relays are used in all new electric-action organs, have no moving parts, and have proven to have long-range reliability. The best solution is to install a system that not only replaces the existing switches for the windchests but also replaces the wind-operated presets in the console.
Our proposal is based on the purchase of a four-manual console that we’ve discovered, whose manual keyboards and electric drawknob units are of the highest quality. This console also includes an excellent relay system that has more than enough capacity to operate the Fort Street organ and any future additions. It has had only about ten years of use, since it was originally purchased as a temporary instrument until the owners could restore their organ with an authentic Skinner-style console.
Our proposal is for Fort Street to authorize our purchase of this console. We will use the keyboards, drawknob units, and solid state relay to upgrade the existing Moeller console to modern-day standards. We will additionally need to replace all the existing cotton-covered cables to the organ’s windchests (about thirty cables in all, containing about 1,200 wires!). This is in order to bring the organ’s wiring up to the standards of the National Electric Code.
The console should be purchased and shipped as soon as possible, since this proposal is specifically built around it. Once it is secured, there will be less of a rush for additional parts to be ordered and the actual change-over to be scheduled. Every effort will be made to keep the organ’s down-time to a minimum, with minimal impact on worship services.
The installation of these new components will give the organ a new lease on life. In conjunction with the ongoing work on the chest actions, it will greatly improve the reliability of the organ and help make it once again the great instrument it is capable of becoming.
The console referred to in the above proposal was purchased this past summer and has been in the Wigton workshop in Lake Orion being adapted to our space and fitted with new components. During the month of February the new console will be connected to the existing instrument (the part that involves the thirty cables with 1,200 wires!).
Because of the complexity of the work and for the safety of all involved, you are urged to stay away from the sanctuary during this time. The organ is expected to be ready for service use by Palm Sunday, April 15. That, however, is not a guarantee but, rather, a projection! Remember that the work being performed is bringing the instrument into the twenty-first century – a 100-year advance in technology.
Throughout this process David Wagner and David Wigton have been constant sources of information and encouragement and to them we are eternally grateful.