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

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For Patterson, pipe organ restoration is anything but formulaic. It’s more like a puzzle that involves interlocking pieces made from wood, metal, magnetic switches, and computer interfaces. // Photo by Aaron Davidson

Patterson’s workshop on St. Clair Avenue is filled with metal pipes of all sizes, voicing tools, tonal testing equipment, boxes filled with pipe organ recordings, computer consoles from every decade since the 1970s, and a beautiful organ he built that awaits an interested buyer. Standing amid this pipe-organ world, Patterson begins to describe the intricacies that go into his craft. “There are two parts to restoration,” he says. “One: getting the instrument working again; and two: correcting the mistakes that the original builder may have made.”

Mistakes, he explains, include use of improper building materials and not taking into account the acoustics or climate of a given room: exposure to sunshine, proximity to cold walls—any environmental factor that will affect the sound and longevity of a pipe organ.

In this way, pipe organ restoration is anything but formulaic. It’s more like a puzzle that involves interlocking pieces made from wood, metal, magnetic switches, and computer interfaces. “For me,” Patterson says, “it is about discovery and working out problems. I have a Bachelor of Science in computer science. I’m naturally curious. I love solving puzzles and I like a challenge—to go at it and not just find a problem and Band-Aid it, but really dig in to find the root of the problem. You solve that and the rest of the problems fall out and come right in line.”

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In the United States, Patterson has built organs for churches in Texas, Florida, and Missouri. His international organ projects include work on the only pipe organ in Thailand and masterpiece organs in France and Belgium. While he is proficient in woodworking, metallurgy, and chemistry—skills needed to solve the problems of modern organs—Patterson is quick to admit that his niche of expertise is his experience with and curiosity in computers, and his application of modern electronic thinking and programming.

“Restoration—that’s the work these days,” Patterson says. “That’s engineering the job, redefining what the instrument is going to become to meet the changing needs of the congregation—those that are current, not those from 30, 40, 50 years ago. And doing it in an extremely workmanlike manner that’s going to last. That’s what I do now.” He looks up to the dark wood façade of the large pipe organ looming over his shop. “I don’t think I’ll build another organ in my life,” he says. “I don’t think I could. For the money I would have to sell this one for, I couldn’t even afford the parts to build its twin.”

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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) // Photo by Aaron Davidson

Depending on how one looks at it, that’s the sad part of this story: There is most likely not going to be another revival of organ building such as those we’ve seen in decades past. As far as the future of organs, Patterson says electronic organs are taking over. “Pipe organs are disappearing from our culture,” he explains, matter of factly. “But there are some people who ask: ‘What happened? Where did pipe organs go?’ And, finally, they say: ‘We have to save them!’ It’s the same way with different species when they start to become extinct: People don’t seem to care until damn near the bitter end.”

According to Patterson, we’re getting close to the bitter end for new pipe organs. Because costs of building a new organ are too prohibitive for the average congregation to even fathom, there likely won’t be a renaissance of new organs. “But there will be a saving of the great ones, the ones considered masterpieces,” he says. “It is evolving into an effort of preservation and restoration.”

It’s a mission perfectly suited to Patterson’s expertise and passion for organs. Currently, he is working on several restorations in the Twin Cities that require everything from moving large consoles across a church and craning organs high above overhead balconies to restoring reservoirs, updating wired connections, and clearing pipes of dust. One project he’s most proud of is a full restoration he recently completed at Holy Cross Lutheran Church in St. Cloud. “That organ had parts from the 1920s and 1970s, totally different generations. I was able to solve all the problems, create reliability, and add new sounds without adding one new pipe. I gave that organ a whole new life and personality.” The congregation’s reaction? “They love it.”

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