HAGERSTOWN -- Business at the M.P. Moller Pipe Organ Co. is so good this year that the company has recalled about a fourth of its employes to help build the music machines that lift churchgoers' spirits.
Ted Moller, head of the nation's largest pipe organ maker, which has been nestled in the shadow of the Appalachian Mountains since 1895, said business "bottomed out" last year in its worst period since the Depression.
But he attributed the decline in organ sales not to a lack of interest in the instruments -- which can give a hall or church the illusion of housing an entire orchestra -- but to proposed changes in tax law.
"The big reasons were the proposed changes in tax laws. A pipe organ is a luxury item, and they're paid for basically by well-to-do members of the church," he said.
With the prospect of charitable contributions being eliminated as a tax writeoff, philanthropists kept their money and left churches to their own devices when it came to setting the mood of religious services.
The new tax law, however, retained deductions for charitable contributions, though the benefit was mitigated by lower tax brackets.
"As soon as the tax question was settled, our sales came back," Moller said.
And that business came back with a vengeance.
"We have an order for the largest pipe organ ever built in our history. It will be 11,000 speaking pipes for the Calvary Church in Charlotte, North Carolina," Moller said, pointing to designs of the massive organ that will be 60 feet high and 50 feet wide and cost more than $1 million.
Aside from that project, still in the design stage, Moller said the company, which employs about 145 people, works on an organ a week. As a result, he sent out a call for furloughed workers to come back to the job in early June.
"In 1925, we built one a day, in those days every theater in the country wanted a pipe organ. That was a peculiar period for organ building," Moller said, adding the company currently makes between 35 and 40 organs a year and works to rebuild between 12 and 15 of the instruments. Nearly all of those go to churches.
Pipe organ prices start at about $20,000, Moller said, and take from two months to a year to build. There are only about six pipe organ makers in the United States and no more than 100 companies that build organs but purchase their parts from other businesses.
Mathias Peter Moller opened a small shop in Warren, Pa., in 1875. In 1880, he moved to an earlier Hagerstown site before shifting to the current location in 1895. Since he began the business, the company has built more than 11,000 of the nation's organs -- or more than eight of the instruments a month. Among the most notable are the National Shrine of the Immaculate Conception in Washington and the organs at the chapels at three federal military colleges: the Naval Academy in Annapolis, the Military Academy at West Point, N.Y., and the Air Force Academy in Colorado Springs.
But the list is seemingly endless, with Moller organs sounding through churches and chapels in nearly every U.S. city.
Moller said that despite the increase in business this year, the industry has seen declining activity during the past 10 years because few churches have been built.
"A lot of new churches being built are Evangelical or Pentacostal, and they do not use pipe organs. I understand the PTL was going to build a church to seat 30,000, but they were going to build an electronic organ," Moller said.
A survey last year showed that Methodist, Lutheran and Presbyterian churches accounted for more than half of the pipe organs in the nation.
"Then when you add Catholics and Baptists you have two-thirds of all organs," he said.
Almost all materials used in the construction of pipe organs are domestic, Moller said, with only about 10 percent of the leather or wood imported. And he said, the nature of organ making, with the exception of the introduction of electricity, remains the same as workers used in the 1400s.
Traditional pipe organs comprise five separate instruments: the great organ, the most powerful part, the smaller swell organ, and the choir, solo and pedal organs, the last played with the feet.
"The basic nature of the pipe organ remains almost unchanged over the past 500 years, except for the development of electricity that has allowed us to build solid state circuitry for consoles," he said.
But even the introduction of electricity does not alter the sound, which cannot be matched by an electronic organ, its closest competitor.
"Let's say a given tone, a viola, we try to create the same tone in a half-dozen buildings, and each building has its own cubic size and its own acoustical characteristics. We can vary the way those pipes are made to try to achieve similar tones from one building to the next," Moller said. "The electronic organ can't do that."