By Scott Hayes
Shortly after I began working for Muller Pipe Organ Company in 2000, Gay Street United Methodist Church of Mount Vernon, Ohio, reached out to our firm for help with a failing pipe organ. David Tovey, then director of music, wanted ideas for a solution. The 20-year process that ensued did not occur in a straightforward manner, but through directed and creative steps, resulting in a unique and colorful instrument with a storied history in its own right—truly a tale of Ohio organbuilding.
Votteler-Holtkamp-Sparling’s Organ for Gay Street Church
Installed in 1927, the church’s Votteler-Holtkamp-Sparling (VHS) was a modest three-manual instrument of 25 ranks with an entirely new mechanism, utilizing pipework from the previous A.B. Felgemaker organ (1886). Installed in two chambers on either side of the choir at the front of the church, the instrument had a gentle presence. Tonally, it was as one might expect, with a plethora of flutes and strings but not much in the way of choruses.
Henry Holtkamp was an innovator and created a stop called “Ludwig’s Tone”—an open flute, essentially two pipes in one, tuned as a celeste. This delightful voice, copied by later builders, has been retained and incorporated into the new organ’s design.
The VHS instrument served the church for decades. It was substantially enlarged and reconditioned in the 1970s and again in the 1990s by a local company. As part of that work, the Great was brought out of the chambers and placed on visually functional windchests on the walls immediately in front of the organ.
Myriad problems became apparent after the 1990s project. Too many stopknobs had been placed on the Art Deco console, and restoration of the ventil windchests was unsuccessful. Additionally, the organ suffered greatly in the often-cold winters, resulting in ciphers and silent stops. Despite incongruent tonal additions, a general sense of the VHS survived—but not enough to guide a successful restoration.
Walter Holtkamp Sr.’s Organ for Christ Church, Cincinnati
In 1957 the Holtkamp Organ Company—the successor firm to VHS—installed its Job No. 1695 in the newly constructed Christ Episcopal Church, Cincinnati. At 68 ranks, five divisions, and three manuals, it was one of the last and largest instruments built under the supervision of Walter Holtkamp Sr.
This organ could not have been more different than Gay Street Church’s 1927 instrument, although some of the same hands and tools likely produced it. The Christ Church organ possessed well-developed, clean, and clear choruses, and aggressive European-style reeds, with all pipes visible and arranged by division in a side gallery.
The instrument rose to prominence under the hands of Gerre Hancock, who began his professional career at Christ Church. The organ was often recorded, and for a time it was the preferred instrument for recitals and masterclasses for students at the Cincinnati Conservatory of Music.
In 1998, Christ Church was consecrated as the cathedral of the Episcopal Diocese of Southern Ohio, and the building was extensively renovated the following year. Time had taken its toll. The organ’s unique tonal aesthetic had gone out of fashion, and its mechanism stood in need of extensive restoration. Moreover, while renovations to the church improved the sound of the choir, the organ had become too far removed acoustically from the choral forces to effectively provide accompaniment and support. In 2020 it was replaced by Richards, Fowkes & Co.’s Opus 24.
A Relocated Holtkamp for Gay Street UMC?
When Muller assumed care of the organ at Gay Street UMC, various options were considered to improve it, but church leaders opted to keep the instrument working as well as it could for as long as possible because of the recent renovations. As the organ declined, various steps were taken to improve its playability.
The most important project was the refurbishment of the unique VHS console. This presented a challenge, since the cabinet was too small for the number of drawknobs needed. Jack Muller, then our principal cabinetmaker (now shop foreman), carefully examined the console and suggested a creative approach to save the cabinet. To accommodate larger stopjambs, we increased the overall width of the console by constructing a new center panel with replica carvings. The cabinet was fitted with a new top and refinished; all other components were replaced.
Still, the problems eventually became too numerous. Various solutions were explored, and finally a decision was made to use the resources of the Christ Church Holtkamp to create an entirely new tonal scheme.
One might ask: Why not relocate the Holtkamp—a historic instrument by an important American builder—as it was? Aren’t we discarding history? The reality is that the organ as it was known at Christ Church could only have existed there, or in a similar space permitting an uncased aesthetic; anything else would not have been a Walter Holtkamp Sr. signature instrument.
The opportunity for relocating the organ did not materialize during the several years it was available for purchase. The cathedral needed the instrument removed in order to begin renovations in preparation for the new organ. If a new home could not be found for the instrument, it was to be discarded or broken up for parts. At the final hour, the organ was saved from destruction and donated to Gay Street UMC by a longtime admirer of the instrument. Because any organ at the church would be mostly chambered, we knew we would need to use the Holtkamp pipework carefully for the project to be successful.
A “New” Muller Organ for Gay Street UMC
Our new organ for Gay Street UMC is three manuals and 40 ranks; it makes use of pipework from both the VHS and Holtkamp instruments in a completely new tonal scheme. The electropneumatic mechanism and casework of the organ are new, and the recently updated console and some existing pipework are retained.
Custom-built quartersawn oak cases were designed to house the Great division and some Pedal pipework, including a facade of Great and Pedal principal pipes. The mirrored cases are placed on either side of the chancel, facing each other. Well into the project, the design of the casework had to be modified; structural analysis found that the church walls are soft clay tiles, necessitating the installation of a robust steel support structure. The casework was widened, and smaller “wings” were constructed to accommodate these changes.
The Great chorus is independent and complete from 8′ Principal to Mixture IV. An 8′ Bourdon and 4′ Spire Flute complete the division’s independent stops, while the Open Flute and Gemshorn are borrowed from the Choir division for flexibility. The Pedal Principal is located in the casework, while the 16′ Bourdon and Trombone are in a chamber immediately behind.
The Swell organ returns to the chamber of the VHS Swell. Tonally, the hand of Walter Holtkamp Sr. is apparent, with the division’s specification largely intact from the Christ Church organ. An independent chorus is here—a foil to the larger one in the Great—as is an abundance of string and flute color. Other hands are also apparent: new English-style reeds color the division, a 4′ Principal replaces Holtkamp’s 4′ Gemshorn, and the Harmonic Flute and Vox Humana of the VHS organ are retained to provide different colors.
The Choir is in the chamber that originally housed the VHS Great, Choir, and Pedal. Using available resources in a new scheme, the design of this division is where our tonal signature becomes obvious. An Open Flute is the workhorse of the Choir, with a Gemshorn and Celeste as the main strings. The Gemshorn is extended to 16′ for use on the Great. VHS’s “Ludwig’s Tone” returns to the division (renamed the more common Ludwigtone) as a secondary undulating stop. A tertiary principal chorus exists here, as do various mutations and flutes. A lovely vintage 8′ Clarinet rounds out the specification, and a new 8′ Festival Trumpet provides the triumphant culmination of the full organ’s sound.
Ordinarily, when specifying a three-manual organ of this size, we prefer a more substantial and independent Pedal division. (Indeed, I suspect that Holtkamp Sr. would have chastised us for only providing three ranks!) Spatial limitations precluded this, as did the wish to have as much color throughout the manual divisions as possible. Complemented by judicious use of digital 16′ and 32′ stops, these three voices are the most important in any Pedal division and certainly provide the independence desired.
So, what kind of organ is this? Is it a Muller? Is it a VHS? Is it a Holtkamp Sr.? I suppose it is representative of Muller, though it is not the instrument we would design if we were to begin from scratch. The new organ is classically American and represents the work of three important Ohio builders of different eras. It is brought into cohesiveness and harmony through intelligent and artistic voicing, traditional and well-designed mechanics, and a touch of happenstance that brought it all together.
We are honored to be part of the long-standing musical heritage at Gay Street United Methodist Church, and we sincerely thank the many people who worked with us over the years. It is because of their persistence and uncompromising commitment to excellence that this organ will continue to sing praises for generations to come.
Scott Hayes is the tonal director for Muller Pipe Organ Company and has been with the firm for over 20 years. Currently based in Virginia, he is also director of music at All Saints Episcopal Church in Richmond.
Photography: Jesse Braswell