NEW YORK: St. Paul's Chapel organ sounds resurrection again

April 13, 2009

Take an aging pipe organ. Add layers of dust and dirt over years of inactivity. Then add the gritty film of destruction that suddenly coated the chapel after the collapse of the World Trade Center towers. What do you get?

The sounds of silence at St. Paul's Chapel.

Until now, that is.

Almost a decade since the organ was last heard inside the chapel on Broadway in New York City, Easter Day featured a kind of rebirth. St. Paul's pipe organ was being resurrected, peeking from its sonic tomb partially cleaned and restored, with half of its nearly 1,700 pipes in working order.

"There's a sense of sustainability when you can restore an old instrument to almost new condition and continue using it," said associate organist Robert Ridgell.

Organ technician and rebuilder Larry Trupiano worked on the St. Paul's organ throughout March. Trupiano, who maintained Trinity Wall Street's pipe organs in the 1990s, has a great deal of affection for the chapel and its instrument and noted that he isn't the only one. While he worked, tourists and pilgrims stopped to listen and snap photos.

"We were more of a show than I realized," Trupiano noted.

St. Paul's, built in 1776, is Manhattan's oldest public building in continuous use and its only remaining colonial church. George Washington worshiped at St. Paul's on his inauguration day, April 30, 1789, and attended services there during the two years New York City was the country's capital. It is now a part of Trinity Wall Street, which is located a few blocks south of St. Paul's on Broadway.

For the eight months following the September 11, 2001, terrorist attacks, which led to the collapse of the twin towers of the World Trade Center, St. Paul's Chapel was a place of respite for recovery workers at the site. Volunteers from all over the country worked 12 hours shifts serving them food, watching over them as they slept in the pews, distributing to them donated items ranging from boots to lip balm, and counseling and praying with them. Chiropractors, podiatrists, massage therapists and others also helped them. More information about that work is available here.

Built in 1964 by the Schlicker Organ Company of Buffalo, New York, at the height of the neo-baroque movement of the 1950s and 1960s, the St. Paul's organ was the first of its kind specifically built for baroque music, particularly the music of Bach.

But not everyone was a fan of the organ. Before it was built, assistant organist Robert Arnold warned Trinity comptroller Desmond Crawford of a possible "showdown" between the organ builders and St. Paul's organist, John Upham, who had "rather unique objections" to the organ's design.

In 1982, organ technician Thomas Martin referred to the organ as "an embarrassment to all connected with the Parish" after a particularly trying Sunday morning when multiple valves ciphered, causing pipes to sound continuously without any keys being played. The organ was rebuilt by the Andover Organ Company that year.

But a decade of silence seems to have tempered the strong opinions.

Mark Peterson, a former assistant organist at Trinity who helped with the organ's final tuning, notes that it was well built for the space it occupies. "In this acoustic, the organ works well. It's not everyone's cup of tea, but it's definitely worthy of preservation," he said.

After Easter, the organ will be used occasionally on Sunday mornings by St. Paul's music associate Marilyn Haskel, as well as for special liturgical events and concerts.

"The chapel is a special place," said Trupiano. "So much has gone on in that building, it's nice to hear its organ come back to life."

The return of the St. Paul's organ received extensive media coverage, including this entry in the New York Times' City Room blog that contains a short video clip about the restoration, and CNN's video coverage here.

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