HAGERSTOWN, MD. -- Business at the M.P. Moller Pipe Organ Co. is so good this year, the firm has recalled about a fourth of its employes to help build the magnificent music machines for churches around the country.
Ted Moller, head of the country's largest pipe organ firm, which has operated here since 1895, said the business "bottomed out" last year and had the worst period since the Depression.
He attributed the decline in organ sales not to a lack of interest in the instruments but to considerations of new 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, some philanthropists left the country's churches to their own devices when it came to setting the mood during religious services.
"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, which is still in the design stage, Moller said that the firm, 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.
He added that the firm now makes about three dozen new organs a year and works to rebuild at least a dozen organs. Nearly all of those go to churches.
The price of pipe organs starts at about $20,000, Moller said. The organs take anywhere from two months to a year to build.
There are only about six pipe organ makers in the United States and about 80 to 100 firms with fewer than 10 employes that build organs but purchase their parts from other companies.
Among the most notable Moller organs are one at the National Shrine of the Immaculate Conception in the District and the organs at the chapels at the Naval Academy in Annapolis, West Point in New York and the Air Force Academy Cadet Chapel in Colorado Springs.
But the list is seemingly endless, with Moller organs resounding through churches and chapels in nearly every U.S. city.
Moller said that despite the increase in business this year, the industry has seen a decrease in activity in the past 10 years because fewer churches that need organs have been built.
"A lot of new churches being built are Evangelical or Pentecostal, 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 all pipe organs in the country.
"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. The nature of organ making, with the exception of the introduction of electricity, remains the same as in the 1400s.
"The development of electricity . . . 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, he noted.
"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."