MARION — Like a phoenix rising from the ashes of a great fire, a 1928 Skinner Opus 695 pipe organ that was nearly destroyed in a New York City blaze has arrived in Eastern Iowa to play again at St. Mark’s Lutheran Church.
The installation of the organ’s console began Tuesday at the church’s Faith Worship Center. It features two large chambers of pipes — 1,732 in all — on either side of the center’s main window. The pipes range in size from no larger than a pencil to 16 feet tall and several hundred pounds. The console has three manuals, 26 ranks and 28 stops. The high-powered blower and motor, refurbished at a Mercedes-Benz body shop, is secure in the lower level.
“I’m very happy. I’m smiling from ear to ear,” said Barbara Ritchie, director of music and the organist at St. Mark’s since 1984. “To see the console there makes it a reality.”
While the Skinner Opus 695 should be completed for a premiere tentatively set for Oct. 14, it won’t be dedicated until Nov. 18, when internationally acclaimed organist Ken Cowen shows what it can do. A Christmas recital is scheduled for Dec. 2.
From a local angle, Barbara says, the arrival of the organ is a “triple win” for the Cedar Rapids area. It joins two other organs made by Ernest M. Skinner and Co. — the Opus 754 at Brucemore mansion and the Opus 771 in Sinclair Auditorium at Coe College. She says the area will become a destination for Skinner organ lovers.
This $450,000 project, financed by the St. Mark’s Church Foundation, has been coordinated by Coe graduate Jeff Weiler, an organ curator for the Chicago Symphony. His firm is also leading the restoration of the Coe organ.
The Opus 695 at St. Mark’s came from St. John’s Evangelical Lutheran Church in the South Bronx, where it was installed in 1928. An altar fire on Christmas Eve 1989 heavily damaged the organ. Despite repairs to the church and the organ (with duct tape), dwindling attendance in the 1990s forced the church to close in 2005.
The St. Mark’s organ committee visited the church in November 2010 and was assured by Weiler, who said it was a miracle the organ survived, that it could be restored. All of the pieces were covered with soot, while 34 pipes and the ivory key overlays were extensively damaged. Dismantling began in January 2011, with pieces being sent to experts in Massachusetts, Connecticut and Wisconsin.
Reconstruction started in May, wiring the console should take another week, and the tuning and voicing of the pipes will follow. In addition to church services, plans for early 2013 call for organ recitals and even the accompaniment of a couple of silent movies.
“We’re hoping the organ community will want to use it,” Barbara said. “It will be a lot of fun.”