The pipes, the pipes are calling

Imagine having an organ so huge that it takes two years to clean

Workers restore Sacramento’s largest pipe organ, at St. John’s Lutheran Church.

Workers restore Sacramento’s largest pipe organ, at St. John’s Lutheran Church.

Photo By Shoka

We all know that size usually matters. Curiosity regarding large sizes of anything, including organs, is healthy and natural. Remember, though, that the size of an organ alone will not determine how pleasurable it will be. That depends, of course, on what it’s really made of, and how it’s played.

Of course, when I was in high school, it was all about the hugeness. Back then, the world’s most famous organist was a guy named E. Power Biggs, and when not testing my own ability to say his name out loud with a straight face, I was bragging about my organ lessons on the biggest pipe organ in Sacramento, a 70-rank Swain & Kates at St. John’s Lutheran Church (on corner of 17th and L streets). That’s pretty good for Sacramento, but I always wondered how it fared against other pipe organs in California—and the world.

These questions come to fore next month, as St. John’s finally will be puffing up the bellows of a newly renovated instrument. Two years ago, a team of technicians carefully hauled large metal pipes and wooden mechanisms out of the church and into trucks bound for Lincoln, Neb., where specialists at the Bedient Pipe Organ Company were waiting to swab and polish every tarnished area. The pipes, some as small as knitting needles, needed heavy-duty cleaning. Dust, mold, rats’ nests and what-have-you (the what-have-you is the worst) had severely gummed up the works.

Now, though, if everything has gone according to plan, the pipes should be as clean as whistles. Or, well, pipes. And that, in fact, will change the St. John’s churchgoing experience. Renovating and reinstalling a pipe organ—taking some of the old components and assimilating them into the new collective—literally morphs it into another instrument altogether, with a different range of sounds.

The main instrument at St. John’s was designed by Swain & Kates of San Francisco and built in 1969. Some of its components date back to 1912—particularly the large redwood pipes that, due to fire-safety standards, must be moved out of cramped staircases and into more open space. The church is a huge building, but 70 ranks of pipes (a “rank” consisting of 12 to 61 bundled, different-sized pipes) still need a lot of space.

OK, if you’ve read this far, you might actually want to know where the biggest pipe organs in the world are. You’ll be happy to learn that several organizations keep meticulous track of this and other, finer points of big pipe organs. Here’s what I’ve learned: There’s some dispute as to what makes one pipe organ bigger than another (i.e., number of pipes, number of manuals, number of ranks and many other details), but several experts at least concur that if you want to name a largest, the two contenders for that prize are one in Philadelphia at the former Wanamaker’s department store (now Macy’s) and another only 60 miles away in New Jersey at the Atlantic City Convention Hall. Both instruments have over 450 ranks of pipes, even though the exact specifications vary depending on who’s doing the counting. Also in the top five are the instrument at Los Angeles’ First Congregational Church (346 ranks) and a chapel organ (325 ranks) at the U.S. Military Academy at West Point, N.Y.

As for pipe organs in California, St. John’s is about the 30th largest. In Northern California, at least a dozen in the Bay Area outsize St. John’s, as does one in Bakersfield with 133 ranks, and even one at Pacific Union College in Angwin, near Napa, with 85 ranks. Other large pipe organs in Sacramento include the instruments at Westminster Presbyterian (at N and 13th streets) and one in the Memorial Auditorium, at 50 and 49 ranks respectively.

But as the St. John’s renovation reminds us, it’s important to keep it all in perspective. No matter how huge your organ, cleanliness, as always, is next to godliness.