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Trinity Episcopal Church, Oak Bluffs, MA

Carlson-Whalon Pipe Organs

The hallmarks of New England village churches are simplicity and modesty, principles that often extend to the pipe organs such churches contain.

Trinity’s first pipe organ was a stock-model instrument, built to a standardized design for small parishes. The best of these instruments (which many builders turned out by the thousand from 1860-1915) lasted a century. But the sea air is hard on buildings and instruments alike, and a need for overhaul came in the 1960s. Unable to commission a brand-new instrument, but unwilling to switch to an inferior (if affordable) alternative, such as an electronic substitute organ or a piano, Trinity instead hired Roy Carlson of Carlson-Whalon Pipe Organ. A well-known Boston organ tuner, Mr Carlson looked after not only famous instruments such as Trinity Copley Square and Symphony Hall, but also tiny village church organs too. For those parishes, he specialized in assembling modest instruments at affordable prices.

For Trinity, Mr Carlson provided new internal mechanisms and a second-hand console. He placed the console opposite the organ itself, to allow the musician to hear in better balance. For the pipes, Mr Carlson used some from the existing instrument and others from his inventory. The result was an unpretentious, sturdy instrument well-suited to the informal nature of summer worship.

In 2011, our firm began servicing the organ, initially putting it into better tune and gradually repairing the most egregious malfunctions. But it was clear that, after six decades of solid service, the instrument needed overhaul. Natural wear cropped up in the form of dead notes, leaks and electrical irregularities. With the availability of funding, we were able to remove the entire organ to our workshops last September. First, we provided a new bellows, for a more ample and stable wind supply. Next, we stripped down all the mechanisms that make the pipes speak (known as “windchests”), cleaned everything and replacing all the worn leather and felt parts. The metal pipes were submerged in water and scrubbed, much as one would wash the dishes. We also removed dents and dings. The wood pipes, which are made mostly of old soft pine, were gently cleaned and given a fresh coat of shellac against the sea air. Finally, the console was upgraded with a simple computer memory, allowing the organist to program rapid changes in sound at the touch of a button.

With all the shop work completed, we returned everything to Oak Bluffs. Once the mechanism and pipes were back in place, we added lights, steps and perches to make it easier for us, and future technicians, to service the instrument. In a critical final step, we carefully evaluated the sound of every pipe (there are 591 in all), making small adjustments to optimize the organ’s tone and balance. That process concluded with a complete tuning.

Our sincere gratitude goes out to Wesley Brown, who has been helpful at every stage. He has shuttled us around when we were without transportation, found housing with the good people of the parish, and even brought us water on those few days when the town’s supply was compromised. We sincerely hope the refurbished organ will serve all the people of Trinity Church for decades to come.

Trinity Episcopal Church, Oak Bluffs, MA.

Trinity Episcopal Church, Oak Bluffs, MA.

Erik Spooner and Jonathan Ortloff unpack organ components during the organ's reinstallation.

Erik Spooner and Jonathan Ortloff unpack organ components during the organ’s reinstallation.