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Future of Damaged Pipe Organ Unclear

by Nathan Brockman

The planes hit, and there was organ music in Trinity Church. When the mighty crescendo of the first cascading trade-center tower began, the music stopped. And after inhaling pulverized concrete and steel, Trinity’s organ, one of the city’s largest, has not been played in the six months since. "The last thing anyone thought was to turn off the organ," says Owen Burdick, Trinity's organist and choirmaster.

Every member of the little congregation that had gathered in Trinity Church, yards away from the trade center, on the morning of September 11 survived to flee 90 minutes later. It is the organ that underwent extensive physical harm. The Parish is currently deciding whether to repair or rebuild the instrument, a process involving prolonged consultations with organ experts and insurance-company representatives.

In the meantime, Burdick and his assistant organist, Sean Jackson, have installed an electronic organ to play during services. Burdick refuses to turn the main organ on, even for a test run, for fear that doing so will compound the damage. "After fire and earthquakes, the number one organ-killer is dust," he says.

This survivor, with its longest pipe 32 feet and its shortest pinky-size, is situated in a gallery at the back of the nave. It has a smaller sibling in the front gallery, with which the larger one communicates through a snakes-nest of wires that meet in the crypt near the interred Bishop and Mrs. Hobart, enabling two to be played simultaneously. There is also a tracker organ, the kind Bach played, in Trinity’s All Saint's Chapel, and another organ up the street at St. Paul's Chapel. Each family member is in choked disrepair.

John Bishop, of The Organ Clearing House in Lexington, MA, was recently hired by the Parish to inspect Trinity’s organs. His report, referring to the largest organ in the back gallery of Trinity Church, states that “The damage…is limited to the significant introduction of dust” related to the trade center’s collapse.

In a letter to Burdick dated February 12, Bishop quotes an article in the Boston Globe of that same day: “Some of the dust [in Lower Manhattan] is ‘as caustic as drain cleaner, because of the high concentration of cement dust, an alkaline substance.’”

Behind the plastic-covered console of the back gallery, inside the main organ, dust coats the horizontal surfaces. Written in the dust near a set of pipes is a date: 9/27. While a cleaning crew devoted 2,000 hours to Trinity's inside and out, the inside of the organ was off limits. To be properly cleaned, the pipes would have to be disengaged, washed, and air-dried.

One sign of the damage dust can do to a pipe organ is the cipher note--otherwise known as a stuck note--which sounds like an unimaginative, big-lunged bagpiper blowing away. "Once it sticks, the only way you can stop it from sticking is to climb up, find the pipe, and temporarily disengage the thing," says Burdick.

Burdick affectionately calls Trinity’s instrument a "mongrel." Its original builder, Henry Erben, completed it in 1846, but significant changes and repairs were made into the next century. In the 1920s, the E.M. Skinner Organ Company installed new pipes and a console. In 1961, the Aeolian Skinner Organ Company revised previous work, making 75 percent of the organ new.

The organists’ skills have allayed any strident complaints from parishioners. "The music that Owen and Sean have produced has been so good that I've had surprisingly few questions," reports the Rev. Samuel Johnson Howard, Trinity's vicar. "Whatever is done, it's clear that it will be labor-intensive and time-consuming. We're months, perhaps years away from a final resolution."

Posted on Trinity News, March 5, 2002.

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