Pipe organs are (like) people, too

In Oak Park, the instruments are ubiquitous, but where do they come from?

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By Michael Romain

Staff Reporter

The dying, duct taped, more than century-old organ at St. Paul's Memorial United Methodist Church in South Bend, Ind., was on life support, so the church's leaders called on Berghaus Pipe Organ Builders. 

A local Indiana newspaper described the Bellwood-based company, one of a few dozen organ manufacturers in the United States, as an "organ hospital of sorts." 

If Berghaus is a hospital, consider Jonathan Oblander — the musical director at Oak Park's Good Shepherd Lutheran Church, 611 Randolph St., and the company's tonal designer — it's chief surgeon of sound. 

Oblander has a master's degree in organ performance from the Juilliard School. He's played the instrument for more than 30 years, he said. 

"I started out on the playing side," he said during a recent interview. "I've been a nut about the organ since I was 13. They say, 'Once you get bit by the organ bug, you're done.' It never stops. My father's an organist, too, so I guess it's always been in the family." 

Oblander has worked at Berghaus for roughly a decade. He said the position allows him to merge his passion for playing with his passion for the instrument's construction and design.

"Organs have the most extremes of frequency and sound and color of almost any instrument. When you think about it, the organ was the first original synthesizer in that you're layering different elements controlled by one person," he said. "This job is a marriage of the playing and the building sides, which is nice."  

And the hospital analogy is not far off. 

One day last month, Steven Hoover, a tonal finisher and reed specialist with Berghaus, was testing some flue pipes — the long, narrow, whistle-shaped devices that comprise roughly 90 percent of the pipes on a standard organ. 

Hoover, sounding like an anatomist, said that air enters from the pipe's chest and passes through its toe, foot and lips. The frequency of the air coursing through the flue is determined by the pipe's length. 

Kevin Chunko, who was testing some reeds, which make up roughly 10 percent of an organ's pipes, said that his love affair with the instrument (he has bachelor's, master's degrees, and "most of a doctorate," in organ studies) is dictated by the "humanness and liveliness" of the wind that produces an organ's distinct sound. 

 "No two organs sound alike," said Jean O'Brien, the company's vice president.  "They're like people." 

Very important people from Oblander's perspective, since their presence is often so central to the churches whose rituals and ceremonies they're often built around.  

"They have stories to tell," Oblander said. "The organ we did in South Bend, there were so many histories that that organ got to see. Now, it's going to see more." 

The restoration project for the organ at St. Paul's, completed last year, cost $450,000 and required that workers disassemble 1,900 pipes, transport them to Bellwood and transport them back to Indiana to be reinstalled. 

"The organ breathes life into the congregation," Carol Thie, a St. Paul's congregant, said at the time. 

When Oak Park's Ascension Catholic Church, 808 S. East Ave., decided that it was time to replace their 1929 Kilgen organ, "parishioners and friends donated over $300,000 with the remaining funds coming from bequests, choral concerts and proceeds from two choir compact disks," accoding to the church's website.

Berghaus installed Ascension's three-manual, 40-rank organ in the fall of 2004 after several years of fundraising and nearly 1,500 CD's sold. 

Kelly Monette, a former Oak Park resident and an operations manager for the company, has had a hand in installing and maintaining Berghaus organs all over the country. The manufacturing process, he said, takes anywhere from a few months to nearly a year. A typical Berghaus organ requires the skills of roughly a dozen people. 

"Everyone has their own expertise," he said. "Some of us are skilled in multiple areas, but by and large, people have their own specialties. We have to cover all of the bases — there's some carpentry, welding, low-voltage wiring. And we all have to be mini engineers in our own way." 

The organs are built in the company's massive warehouse before they're taken down and shipped to the site where they'll be installed. Once Monette and his team of builders have finished an organ, it's Oblander's job to test the instrument's sound. 

The installation process, Monette said, can take several months, and often requires workers uprooting themselves from their families to stay in extended stay suites or hotel rooms. 

"You become part of a community for a while," Monette said. "You're in the church more often than some of their longtime members. You're in the space, you build this great organ and then you're out." 

Berghaus has been replicating that process since the company was founded by Leonard Berghaus back in 1967. 

"The company was founded out of my father's garage," said Brian Berghaus, who has been president since 2004. He said that the organ maker has been operating out of its current industrial space for roughly 15 years. 

If it's up to Berghaus, this organ hospital will be here for as long as there's a need for the life-like instruments to be birthed and brought back to life.  

"My wife is in healthcare and she tells me that she thinks she makes a difference, she likes to tell herself that she does — you diagnose, you treat, but you don't get follow-up," Monette said. "With this job you do. You get closure on every single project. There's a celebration, a dedicatory recital, everyone is happy, but then you have to let them go." 

CONTACT: michael@oakpark.com  

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Tom Gull  

Posted: February 21st, 2018 9:09 AM

Len and Brian Berghaus were wonderful to work with on Ascension's organ project while I was the parish's business manager. I highly recommend them.

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