Sacred Sounds: How One Restoration Expert is Preserving the World’s Pipe Organs

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Tim Patterson, 61, is a St. Paul-based pipe organ builder and restoration expert // Photo by Aaron Davidson

Photos by Aaron Davidson

Pipe organs are the most complex instruments in the world. Born of wood, metal, fabric, wire, glue, and finish, they contain many moving parts, some as sensitive and fragile as eggshells. They can include massive pipes three stories tall that weigh more than a ton, all the way down to small toothpick-sized pipes that weigh less than an ounce. Most organs are large enough for, and require that, a person step inside and walk around their labyrinthine skeleton to make adjustments and repairs.

Playing a pipe organ with mastery requires coordination of both hands and feet in a dizzying display; organists practically jog in place while moving their hands from manual to manual (keyboards, in pipe organ terminology), pulling stops to adjust multiple settings during a piece. The end result: pipe organs move listeners not only emotionally, through a variety of tones, colors, and voices, but physically, with tones so low they pound your chest and pitches so high they tickle your nose.

The intensity of this music doesn’t begin or end with the organist, though. Rather, it is the builders and restoration experts—those who design the magnificently intricate beasts and those who save them from old age—who deserve the ultimate credit for the instrument’s grandiosity.

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“There are two parts to restoration. One: Getting the instrument working again; and two: correcting the mistakes the original builder may have made,” says Patterson // Photo by Aaron Davidson

Tim Patterson, 61, is a St. Paul-based pipe organ builder and restoration expert. He has perfected his skills over a lifetime, evolving his craft to keep pace with the changing landscape of organs. Where his one-man business, Associated Organ Builders, once focused primarily on building and installing the instruments, it now focuses on restoration.

Patterson’s journey to becoming a pipe organ restoration expert began in the late 1960s, when he was a preteen building transmitters and receivers for HAM radios. He was also playing the piano. “I remember going to communion at Ascension Church in North Minneapolis and they were playing the pipe organ big and full,” he says. “I turned around and looked at it, standing in awe […] You could feel it. It moved you. No other single instrument does that. And I wanted to know all I could about it.” From that moment on, Patterson set aside the piano for the organ, going out of his way to play anything he could get his hands on: electronic organs, pipe organs—any organ at any church that would let him practice.

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At the age of 23, Patterson created the first computerized pipe organ in Minnesota // Photo by Aaron Davidson

“One day, when I was 18 years old,” he remembers, “I wandered up to Our Lady of Lourdes Church in downtown Minneapolis. Inside, there was this little six-rank organ.” (A rank is a set of pipes, generally equal to the number of keys on the manual, that represent one of potentially dozens of voices of the organ: trumpets, violins, flutes, and, of course, different organs.) “It was a Saturday afternoon, the church was empty, and I started playing several pieces I knew. I just loved the sounds that it made.” When he finished, a resounding, deep, Irish-accented voice came out of nowhere, exclaiming, “Keep playing!” It was Father Alan Moss, who promptly offered Patterson the organist position at the church.

Two years later, Patterson got his first organ-building job at that same church, adding 12 ranks of pipes, voicing them to “speak” correctly and in tune, rewiring thousands of wires, and building out another case for the pipes. In 1977 , when Patterson was 23, he created the first computerized pipe organ in Minnesota. Three years after that, he stepped beyond building organs into actual pipe making. He trained for seven years under Geoffery W. Hunt, in South Minneapolis, before going back to college. At the University of Wisconsin–River Falls,  Patterson studied computer science, math, and theory, all of which advanced his pipe organ expertise. 

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