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.