From pipe dream to church reality


Pipes and other materials are stacked on top of pews during the building process of an organ consisting of over 7,000 pipes at the First Baptist Church in Washington, D.C. (Matt McClain/For The Washington Post)

Somehow, the pipe organ had to fit. It was delivered on a frigid January morning to the steps of the First Baptist Church in about 20,000 parts, packed into an 18-wheeler that struggled to squeeze into a downtown Washington parking spot.

Out came the blower, responsible for puffing air into the pipes. In came the first problem. The crew was supposed to carry the piece down a ramp, into the basement, past the day-care center, through a doorway and into a chamber in the belly of the church. The blower was 42 inches wide.

The doorway? Only 35.

“We can’t knock down the wall,’’ said Dennis Lambert, an affable church deacon, in the drawl of his native Missouri. “We’re going to have to do something.”

Lambert, 72, jokingly calls himself the project’s “worrier in chief.’’ The church needed one, for this was no small project. This was an $1.8 million investment to build an organ bigger and more grandiose than even the one at the Kennedy Center.

Yes, a massive, baroque church organ. Like the ones you see in horror movies. Like the ones some churches are shunning in favor of drums and electric guitars. An organ with which the 700-plus members of First Baptist hope to boldly sound out the church’s purpose.

This era might be more Bieber than Bach, but the instrument would signify the power and beauty of traditional ecclesiastical music. The sound cloud emanating from the sanctuary would fill the air around Dupont Circle, attracting new members and declaring that the church was here to stay.

But first, the blower had to get through the doors.

A project dating to 1955

It took 58 years to get to this point. The organ project originated in 1955, when the First Baptist Church of the City of Washington, D.C., rebuilt its home at the corner of 16th and O Streets NW. Founded in 1802, the church had been on that corner since 1890.

The 1955 reconstruction produced a glorious sanctuary with 58-foot ceilings, gothic arches and angels hidden in the woodwork. Early plans envisioned a behemoth pipe organ as a defining feature. But there wasn’t enough money to build it, and the dream was eventually set aside.

Instead, the church invested in stained-glass windows that filter the light in blues and reds when the sun hits. They built an indoor basketball court for the church team. They started a day-care program. Security bars were installed on basement windows to block out the troubles of the world.

Lawrence Schreiber, organist at First Baptist for the past 12 years, had resigned himself to playing a 1948 organ that wasn’t built for the sanctuary’s unique acoustics or suited to a congregation that thirsted for hymns and anthems from the 19th century.

Although Schreiber was one of the most accomplished organists in the city (he played at the funeral service for Lyndon B. Johnson), he made do with an organ he called “adequate” — two rows of keyboards, 2,100 pipes.

But the leather seat underneath Schreiber began to wear. Members would have to free up keys that got stuck in the middle of services. By 2010, the church had collected a number of generous donations to its half-century-old organ fund. It was time.

“This is big!” said Schreiber, a jovial man with glasses shaped like bottle caps. “I haven’t had anything really to play in 12 years because we didn’t have an instrument that could handle the best works. Now, you get the chance to construct for something magnificent.”

He dreamed big. Nearly 40 years ago, when he was minister of music at the National City Christian Church off Thomas Circle, he helped design its acclaimed organ. With nearly 8,000 pipes, that organ produces a sound so commanding that downtown Washington’s suit-and-tie set drops in to hear hymns on their lunch breaks.

Lambert, the deacon at First Baptist, also took an immediate interest in the organ project. He joined the church in 1989, drawn to its traditional worship style, which was similar to the one he’d grown up with as a preacher’s son in Kansas City. He remembered the organ-building project at his father’s church, where they’d downsized their vision and bought an electric organ instead. He didn’t want to see that happen again.

With funding in place, the two co-chaired the committee that eventually settled on Austin Organs to provide the church’s new instrument. (Like many organ companies, Austin Organs frets about its future. Nonetheless, it has lasted 120 years; for it, this organ was No. 2,795.)

The church prepared for the new organ by putting steel support beams under the altar. It reconfigured old choir rooms into dorms so that the four-member assembly crew from Connecticut would have a convenient place to sleep while they put it all together. It knocked down walls, including some with asbestos that had to be disposed of.

With the sanctuary awash in dust and caution tape, Sunday services were held in the basement.

On a recent Sunday, a greeter apologized to new visitors because their worship area was now more industrial than ecclesiastic. Still, a small gold cross lay on the communion table and the senior pastor wore his thick robes. The choir sang “Be Thou My Vision” and “Praise God From Whom All Blessings Flow.”

A question of identity

“Where do I fit in? Where does the church fit in?” the Rev. Jeffrey Haggray asked in that day’s sermon.

The questions were not rhetorical. The church recently leased its parking lot to a condo developer. Its dwindling congregation is getting grayer in a city that’s growing younger, in a country that’s increasingly unchurched.

“I’m only one man. I don’t have all the answers,” Haggray said.

Is an organ the answer? Certainly its acquisition seems to signal the triumph of tradition over modernization. Although the church holds services with more modern music on Saturdays, the new organ is its most significant investment in the future.

“It lets people know this is who we are,’’ Lambert said. “This is how we worship. But, yes, this is really a leap of faith.”

But it may be a less hazardous leap than it appears. Both the American Guild of Organists and the Associated Pipe Organ Builders of America say the instrument is undergoing a renaissance of sorts, evidenced by the high-profile organs that have been installed over the past two decades in Dallas, Los Angeles, Philadelphia and, of course, the Kennedy Center. All those were in concert halls; for a church to install such a pipe organ nowadays is a rarity.

When built, it will be among the largest organs in the city, behind the National Cathedral, the National Shrine of the Immaculate Conception and (only by a little) the one at National City. And it will far outshine First Baptist’s original organ.

The old organ had two rows of keys; the new organ will have five. The old one had 2,100 pipes; the new one, 7,000. The old organran on 5 horsepower. The new blower? It runs on 20.

And the old blower, the lungs of the instrument, easily fit through a door.

A problem solved

As the new blower sat in the hallway that January morning, the crew pulled the other parts inside the church’s sanctuary.

Protective plastic had been placed over the baptismal font; the carpeting had been lifted from the ground. The crew carried in pallets of wooden boxes containing metal pipes as short as eight inches and as long as 40 feet. They carried handcrafted reed pipes and wooden chests filled with colorful wires. They carried screwdrivers and drills, tape and glue. This cascade of stuff would somehow form the instrument. The sanctuary smelled like poplar trees, but looked like a project from Ikea.

Two days after the crew moved in the rest of the parts, they returned to the basement and took the blower apart, piece by piece. The single largest part of the organ, it weighs 1,600 pounds. Its shell, made of tin and steel, is shaped like a giant spool.

Wrenches in hand, the crew surrounded the monster. They cranked and loosened bolts, setting washers aside. The blower was dissected into five smaller parts. Now each could be rolled through the door.

Over the next few days, there’d be other small victories. The crew installed the air chest that would carry the blower’s air to the pipes, the wooden chests that would support the pipes and a wooden top to control the instrument’s sound.

In a little more than a month, each of the organ’s 7,000 pipes should be installed and tested. And the church prays to have a working pipe organ again by Easter. Schreiber, the organist, envisioned christening the instrument. He would play Franck’s chorales. He imagined the congregation roused to a standing ovation.

Fifty-five years of dreaming. Three years of planning. Twenty-five thousand pounds of parts. Seven thousand pipes. Almost $1.8 million. A blower that was just a little too big.

The organ’s first ovation came on its third day, and it came from the project’s worrier in chief after the blower was installed in its proper place. The organ would fit.

Robert Samuels writes for the Post’s social issues team. In Maryland, he focuses on issues affecting low-income children and families. He also covers life in the District.
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