September 2017 TAO Cover Feature Article

Mount Olivet United Methodist Church
Arlington, Virginia
Holtkamp Organ Company • Cleveland, Ohio
By F. Christian Holtkamp

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When approaching the Washington, DC, area in the crush of daytime traffic, it is hard to imagine what it was like some 150 years earlier. At that time, Mount Olivet United Methodist Church stood in open farm country on Glebe Road, in the same location as it stands today. When the church was founded in 1854, Glebe Road was unpaved and only wide enough to allow for the passage of horse-drawn buggies. The first church building was used as a hospital and stable during the Civil War. In the winter of 1861, much of the building was dismantled by Union troops stationed nearby in their search for firewood. The original structure was replaced in 1870, followed by two additional buildings: one constructed in 1897 and the most recent, completed in 1948.

The pipe organ first arrived at Mount Olivet Church in 1941, when a two-manual, eight-stop Möller, originally built in 1921 for Corinthian Baptist Church in Indianapolis, was moved to Mount Olivet Church. Subsequently restored by Möller and moved to the new church in 1948, it was removed and replaced by a new three-manual, 26-stop Möller in 1985.

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When Mount Olivet’s director of music ministries, Steven Shaner, first invited me to visit, we played, listened, and talked about the scales and voicing of the organ, the placement of the divisions, and their impact in the worship space. The Great and Pedal were primarily placed against the rear chancel wall, giving them good projection down the nave of the church. The Swell and Positif divisions were placed in the side chambers of the chancel and spoke across the chancel, limiting their ability to project down the nave of the church to the congregation. Pipe scales were too small for the size of the worship space. It was also clear that during installation the wind pressures were raised somewhat in order to push the pipes and make them louder. Unfortunately, this was done without any changes to pipe scaling or voicing, with the inevitable result that the pipes became harsher in tone and less stable in tuning, neither of which is desirable. In spite of the organ’s shortcomings, it was clear that it had many good and useful components. It was the wish of Dr. Shaner and the congregation that we use as much of the 1985 Möller as was possible, without compromising the quality of the finished organ.

A project such as this always begins with two basic questions. The first is “What do we have to work with?” The materials at our disposal were a console, pipes, chests, wind regulators, and a blower. From the outset we decided to eliminate the chests. They would need to be releathered in 20 years or so and they were designed for pipe scales that were smaller than those that we would need. It was decided to replace them with slider chests with electric pulldowns and electric solenoid stop actions for the manual chests, and electropneumatic unit chests for the unit stops and bass pipes. The console had been recently restored, and contained an updated combination action, so it was also retained. Additionally, we used the existing blower and many of the existing wind regulators.

The second question is “What should the final result be?” As we discussed the project we envisioned an organ of three manuals and pedal, in which all four divisions are placed in the chancel proper, and not in the side chambers of the chancel. This proved to be possible with the exception of the 16′ pipes of the Pedal and Swell. As we looked at space planning, it became clear that we could build an organ of roughly 35 stops without enlarging the size of the chancel area. With this in mind, we arrived at a specification that used the majority of the stops in the Möller organ, however, it was also clear that if we were to use the existing pipes without alteration, they would continue to be acoustically and musically inadequate. As a result we made the decision to enlarge the diameters, or “rescale,” many of the stops being reused. All but one of the existing stops were retained. Of these, four are reeds and 21 are flues. The flue pipes were all reused as is or rescaled to give the desired musical and acoustical result in the worship space. Four of the existing stops were retained: the 4′ Octave, Sesquialtera II, and both 2′ stops. The remaining 17 flue stops were rescaled as much as seven pipes. Since rescaling is not appropriate to reed pipes, all four reeds were revoiced and reused.

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Last to come was the visual design. We had three parameters that guided our process. First, we could not obstruct the view of the rose window in the center of the wall at the back of the chancel. Second, we wanted the organ facade to be at somewhat of an angle to help project the sound of the choir to the congregation. Third, we wanted the organ interior to be as shallow as possible. As I sketched out preliminary designs, the same question arose: how would I detail the casework once the basic shell was established? It clearly needed to be Classical in concept, but how could I either compete with or blend in with the strong posts and capitals in the upper chancel walls and ceiling? My final solution was not to compete with it at all, but to adopt it, lock, stock, and barrel. In order to do this, we had to precisely replicate the moldings, ornaments, and capitals, otherwise it would look like an ersatz imitation of the original. This was accomplished by making rubber castings of all the critical components of the chancel detailing. These rubber molds were transferred to plaster castings. The castings were then used to make production molds to form the ornaments and capitals of the chancel. The plaster ornaments and capitals were then integrated into the wood components of the casework. The match is exact. The results are outstanding.

The project overall has been a great success. The action is quick and responsive. The sound is full and supportive without being oppressively loud. The range of timbre is much wider than the size of the organ implies. The visual design fits the church like a glove. I thank everyone at Mount Olivet Church for giving us this great opportunity. I invite you to visit and hear for yourself the seamless way in which an existing instrument can be used to create something wonderful and new.

F. Christian Holtkamp, president and artistic/tonal director of Holtkamp Organ Company, is the sixth generation of leadership at the company. He holds a master of music degree in organ performance and has studied voice in high school and as an undergraduate. He is a member of the AGO, Associated Pipe Organ Builders of America, American Institute of Organbuilders, and Organ Historical Society.

Photos by Jim Coates

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