Noteworthy: Restoration of historic pipe organ reaches a milestone

2 blowers provide the “wind” that makes the instrument's sounds

Doug Cornell from Climate Engineers checks the fit of segments of pipe as he works in the organ chamber in Sinclair Audi
Doug Cornell from Climate Engineers checks the fit of segments of pipe as he works in the organ chamber in Sinclair Auditorium at Coe College. (Jim Slosiarek/The Gazette-KCRG)

CEDAR RAPIDS — A restoration that is breathing new life into a historic pipe organ at Coe College took a major step forward last week, when the “lungs” of the instrument were reinstalled after a year of repair.

The airtight maze of metal ducts and two large turbines were installed in the new environmentally controlled blower room beneath the Sinclair Auditorium stage. The blower provides the air, or “wind,” that makes the sounds for the Skinner organ.

“This is the lungs of the colossus,” said Jeff Weiler, a 1981 Coe graduate and organ curator based in Chicago who is leading the restoration. “What this represents is the first major phase of a multiphase, multiyear project that will restore this instrument to its 1929 condition.”

It’s important for the college and the Cedar Rapids community to understand that they are home to “one of the most important pipe organs in the world,” Weiler said.

“It’s an enormous cultural asset,” he said. “It’s iconic in terms of its heritage value.”

Constructed by esteemed builder Ernest M. Skinner, considered the “best of the best” in American organ building, it will be one of few Skinner organs in the country to be fully restored upon completion of this project in several years, Weiler said. And the Coe organ represents the work of the Skinner firm at the zenith of the company, he said.

Skinner organs are no longer made. To build something like this today would cost millions of dollars, and certain materials used in the instrument are no longer available, said Weiler, a Traer native.

The old blower room was located in an unsuitable environment, next to where steam entered the building, he said. Burst steam pipes on several occasions caused water and mold damage to some of the old blower components, so a few portions were rebuilt with new materials.

But the rest of the blower’s original parts were restored in this project, Weiler said. The blower also will be restored to “full voices,” since the instrument’s power was tamped down in the move to Sinclair Auditorium in 1952.

The organ actually belongs to the city of Cedar Rapids. The Veterans Memorial Commission purchased it new for $35,000 in 1930; it was not unusual at that time for cities to buy organs for civic auditoriums. But by the 1950s, the organ had fallen into disuse and some disrepair. The city struck a deal with Coe to move the organ to campus in 1952, and Coe has since housed and maintained the instrument.

Coe raised more than $100,000 for the restoration. The college hopes to get $800,000 from the Bradley Foundation in Bryn Mawr, Pa., a philanthropic group with the sole purpose of supporting the preservation of Skinner pipe organs, to complete the rest of the restoration to the 3,170 pipes and organ console. What happens next in the process and how long that takes depends on the amount officials receive from the Bradley Foundation.

About 40 local donors contributed to Coe’s fundraising effort, with the Veterans Memorial Commission making the largest contribution, said Dick Meisterling, Coe’s vice president for advancement.

“We are very excited to reach this stage,” he said. “This is a big deal for us.”

The quality of the restored organ will be such that organ enthusiasts from around the world will come to see it, Weiler said.“There is interest on an international scale,” he said. “What you see here is the best of the best.”

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