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An Organ Journey

History of Sanctuary Organs at White Plains United Methodist Church

Baldwin Organ Model 5

Excellence in music in has been an important part of the worship experience at White Plains United Methodist Church since its inception. Of course, the limitations of a young congregation were quite evident in the early days after the church was chartered in 1961. The first sanctuary was the rented auditorium of Cary High School, where only a piano was available. Even after the congregation moved to its new building early in 1965, a borrowed piano continued to lead the services of worship. The congregation, which had grown up in churches with organs, longed for this special instrument but finances precluded acquiring one at that time. The first organ to grace the new sanctuary was a Baldwin Model 5 electronic instrument, loaned by a Raleigh piano and organ company in hopes that the church would purchase it. After a few Sundays, the instrument was returned to the dealer. 

Everett Orgatron

In 1966, Pastor Johnny Lewis learned from a contractor-acquaintance, whose company was demolishing a burned church building in Spruce Pine, NC, that their organ had not been damaged and was available for purchase. Pastor Lewis and Choir Director JoAnn Moore, drove up to Spruce Pine in February to see the instrument and decided that the church should buy it. The contractor asked $1,000, but agreed to take $900 because he tithed. In due course, the organ arrived at White Plains. It was an Everett Orgatron, a 1940s-era product, which was basically a reed organ whose tones were sensed electrically and then amplified. The console had two full-size manuals, a full pedalboard and perhaps a dozen stops, enabling the organist to play typical literature. Initially, the speaker cabinets were placed on wooden stands inside storage spaces on either side of the small chancel, speaking through doors opening into the chancel. Eventually, they were mounted in new openings high up in the chancel walls. This organ left a lot to be desired. In this early model, pressing the keys opened valves to admit air to the reeds to produce sound. These reeds, like those of pump organs and accordions, had a slow speech pattern which gave the instrument a sluggish sound. Further, because the several stops were derived from only a few sets of reeds, the organ had little tonal variety. Nonetheless, it served the church reasonably well for a decade.

Austin Organ

In the early 1970s, the congregation began planning for a new sanctuary. It was recognized that a new organ needed to be a part of the facility, but it appeared that a pipe organ would not be practicable because of limited finances. William Easter, who had succeeded Mrs. Moore as choir director, began to scout around for possibilities. In a conversation with a substitute organist, Betty Hunt, who had connections with Meredith College, he learned that Meredith was not going to retain its Austin pipe organ when it relocated its music program to a new facility. An organ committee, comprising Easter, Al Newlyn and Sandy Miller, went to inspect the instrument and decided that the church should pursue purchasing and moving it. With the approval of the Building Committee in January, 1976, Easter worked out an agreement with Dr. David Lynch, head of the Music Department, to purchase the organ for $10,000. The church also contracted with Chapel Organ Company of Winston-Salem, NC to move and reinstall the instrument at White Plains for another $10,000. Fortunately, this negotiation took place in time for the architect to provide space for the organ in the plans for the new sanctuary. Fortunate, because the organ had a 30-foot long universal windchest, and it required three separate chambers. Few standing sanctuaries could have accommodated such an instrument. An unexpected development occurred in late summer of 1977 when the college wanted the organ removed from classrooms in which it had been stored. The new sanctuary was far from ready to receive it, and the church did not want to waste money paying to have it stored elsewhere. The dilemma was solved by placing most of the pipes and other parts in the yet-to-be-finished choir-robing room and sealing the doorways with plywood. The console was placed at the end of the hallway in the educational wing. There they stayed until the sanctuary was fully completed and occupied. in November, 1977. Although the Austin Organ was designed for student practice and not for worship use, it provided a quantum leap over what the church had been used to. It was a three-manual, pedal instrument of 18 ranks, including chimes. The dedication recital was given on April 30, 1978 by Dr. Harry Cooper, emeritus professor of organ at Meredith, the original tonal designer of the organ. The Austin Organ was of 1961 vintage, so it was relatively new when it was acquired by White Plains. A new blower was provided to replace the one that had been retained from a previous organ, and the main chest was releathered at that time. Some years later the then Music Director/craftsman John Watson undertook a three- year program of releathering the many pneumatic motors inside the chest, and under Music Director Larry Speakman the mechanical combination action was replaced with an electronic system. Otherwise, the organ functioned reliably for nearly 35 years with only minimal maintenance.

Wicks Organ Royal Classic II

When in 2011 it became obvious that the problems could not be isolated and corrected, the Church Council appointed a committee to study the situation and to formulate a recommendation for remediation. After a year of study, the committee recommended that the church accept the terms of a contract with Wicks Organ Company, Highland, Illinois to build a new organ, incorporating the pipes and other reusable parts from the existing Austin instrument. As a part of the agreement, Wicks provided an interim electronic instrument, their Royal Classic II for use by the church. This, then, became the fourth organ to lead traditional worship at White Plains United Methodist Church.