WEST BLOOMFIELD — What if a musical instrument you owned was the only one of its kind?
That is the case with the organ in the West Bloomfield Congregational Church. Made by the W.J. Davis Co. of Buffalo in 1875, it is the only known organ still in existence built by that organ maker.
This Saturday, a citation from the Organ Historical Society will honor the instrument during a ceremony at the church. The international society is holding its annual convention in Rochester, and members will be visiting organs throughout the region. Its member musicians, organ builders, historians, scholars and music lovers celebrate, preserve and study the pipe organ in America in all its historic styles.
Besides the West Bloomfield church, the Avon Methodist Church, which owns an A.B. Felgemaker Co. organ dating to 1895, is also receiving a historic organ citation.
“As part of the citation, we have promised to keep the organ in good repair and not do any dramatic renovations that would damage its historic value,” said the Rev. Corey Keyes, pastor of the West Bloomfield church, of the instrument noted for having excellent tonal and mechanical preservation for its age.
Since 1975 the Organ Historical Society has been recognizing exceptionally important and noteworthy instruments with citations. Some of the most celebrated organs in the world have been honored and protected by these designations.
More than 400 instruments have been recognized — including those in the Mormon Tabernacle in Salt Lake City and the Memorial Art Gallery in Rochester.
“We are being included in some rather lofty company,” Keyes said.
The Davis organ was installed in 1881 at the West Bloomfield church soon after the current building, its third, was completed in 1875.
“The organ is an antique, pushing 150 years old,” said Paul Hudson, the church’s financial team leader. Records show that a mule train brought it from Buffalo at a freight cost of $12.
“It was originally tuned in situ, that is, in place in the sanctuary so that the church leaders could hear it and approve,” Hudson said. “The sanctuary acts like an amplifier, which is why the organ was not built into a recess as you might see in other churches.”
The instrument features an ornate incised hardwood case. The painted decoration and gold leaf on the pipes are considered to be original.
“Everyone on the OHS committee is very excited that we’re able to recognize such a special organ during our annual convention this week,” said Margaret-Mary Owens, a graduate student in organ performance and literature at the Eastman School of Music. She is among a handful of student volunteers who helped with convention planning. She reached out to those churches with historic organs believed to be in original condition.
“It is unusual to have an 1875 organ that hasn’t been altered,” said Owens, who visited the West Bloomfield church in the spring to examine the instrument, meet with Keyes and gather documentation. She described the organ’s condition as “great.”
“When we say ‘original condition’ we mean its mechanical and tonal aspects are not changed. The case, pipes, stops, and tracers are all original,” Owens said.
Those parts made of leather and felt wear out and are normally replaced every 20 years.
“A lot of people see organs merely as furniture,” said Owens, who describes these instruments as “very endangered.”
Over the years there has been the need for repairs to the West Bloomfield organ and they can be costly. This spring, Hudson said an anonymous donor made it possible to repair the oboe section and the tremolo mechanism.
“The organ is the church’s biggest physical asset and may be worth more than the church building itself,” said Hudson, who cites the replacement value as $400,000 to $500,000.
“The organ has a magnificent sound — full and powerful when we pull out all the stops, yet she can be soft and tender while still filling the sanctuary with music,” said Andrea Stein, one of WBCC’s two organists. Stein alternates playing it with Sue Belcher.
Beginning about 30 years ago Stein job-shared with her mom, Kay Charron, until Stein went away to college. Charron actually began playing the organ when she was 12.
“I think she was probably getting tired of playing every Sunday after all those decades and wanted a way to have a few weeks off,” said Stein, with good humor.
Hudson said he is proud of the national citation, “because many generations of church folk have applied proper care and attention to this glorious instrument. We’ve been good stewards going way back.”
A complete list of organ citations awarded by OHS can be found here.