Experts have spent the past week in the bowels of a historic pipe organ at St. John’s Catholic Church in Bangor painstakingly weighing, measuring and photographing every piece of the church’s rare, surviving E. & G. G. Hook Opus 288.
The information on the 19th-century organ, which is one of only about a dozen of its kind that’s still around, can help other groups care for their organs from the same period and manufacturer. And it can help those trying to restore other organs from the same period, giving restorationists precise measurements on the parts they need to bring organs back to life — which is what happened with St. John’s organ three decades ago.
“This project is an important step forward to document, through precise measurements, photographs, and observations, the physical and tonal details of this remarkable, and rare-surviving mid-19th century pipe organ, which is a cultural landmark in Bangor and a national treasure,” said Kevin Birch, music director at the church.
Nicholas Wallace of Gorham is one of the experts who have spent the past week documenting the Bangor church’s organ. He joined his father’s pipe organ building and restoration company David E. Wallace & Co. LLC in Gorham after he earned his degree from the University of Southern Maine’s school of music.
At left: Organ experts are collecting data from the historic 1860 pipe organ at St. John Catholic Church in Bangor for future generations of organ builders. At right: Pipes in the lower keyboard of the E. & G. G. Hook Opus 288 at St. John Catholic Church in Bangor. Credit: Linda Coan O’Kresik / BDN
Tokyo-born Nami Hamada of Ipswich, Massachusetts, is the other. She studied organ performance at Ferris University in Yokohama, Japan, and at the New England Conservatory of Music in Boston. She has worked for companies in Massachusetts but now is an independent contractor in the organ building and restoration industry.
The project, which was delayed by the pandemic, is funded by the St. John’s Organ Society, which Birch helped found in 1993, a year after he was hired.
Since then, Birch has become recognized internationally as an expert on organs made by brothers Elias and George Greenleaf Hook during the 19th century. The company operated from 1827 to 1935 and built more than 2,000 pipe organs.
The information gathered by Wallace and Hamada will be available on the society’s website and to other organizations that support the study and care of 19th-century organs.
“The documentation helps put the instrument in perspective for its time and place,” Birch said. “It will help organ historians, particularly those who study Hooks, see how St. John’s organ is alike and different in relation to other significant Hook organs in the United States and Europe.”
At left: Inside of the historic pipe organ at St. John Catholic Church, Nami Hamada looks into the lower keyboard while collecting data. At right: Keys of the E. & G. G. Hook Opus 288 in St. John Catholic Church. Credit: Linda Coan O’Kresik / BDN
Earlier this year, Birch played a Hook Opus 553 in Berlin built 10 years after the St. John’s organ was finished. It originally was in a church in Woburn, Massachusetts, before being shipped to Berlin.
“It is a strikingly modern design for the 1870s and reflects the emerging concert practice of the time,” he said.
Going forward, the information also can be used in the restoration of other 19th-century organs. For example, missing pipes could be replaced by historically accurate ones using data from the documentation.
St. John’s on York Street was completed in 1856.
The organ was ordered in early 1860 at a cost of $4,000 and was the 288th instrument built by the Hooks. It was delivered that December from the Boston factory by steamship.
It took nearly two weeks to assemble — about twice the time it is taking to complete the documentation — and the organ was first heard by parishioners on Christmas Eve in 1860.
It is the largest 19th-century “tracker action” organ in northern New England, according to the St. John’s Organ Society.
The term “tracker action” describes a direct mechanical connection between the keys and the pallets under the pipes. The organ has 34 stops and 1,869 pipes varying in length from a few inches to 16 feet. It is a three-manual organ, having three keyboards for the hands, plus the pedalboard, played by the feet. It is one of only a dozen or so three-manual Hook’s in existence today.
At left: Nicholas Wallace photographs and records organ pipe measurements on Thursday. Wallace and fellow organ expert Nami Hamada spent the last week inside the historic 1860 pipe organ at St. John Catholic Church in Bangor collecting data for future generations of organ builders. At right: A zinc pipe from the E. & G. G. Hook Opus 288. Credit: Linda Coan O’Kresik / BDN
The organ deteriorated over time and by the end of the 1970s, it was unplayable. A major restoration, undertaken in 1981 by Bozeman-Gibson & Company of Deerfield, New Hampshire, brought the organ back to life.
“Having a Hook organ meant having the very best organ you could have at the time,” Birch said.
A series of hourlong concerts this summer, sponsored by the organ society, will mark the 30th season since the organ’s restoration. They will be held at 7:30 p.m. on Thursdays, July 29 through Sept. 1. The concerts are free but donations are accepted.
For more information about the organ and the St. John’s Organ Society, visit hookopus288.org.
Correction: A previous version of this story incorrectly stated Nicholas Wallace’s hometown.