Restoring the historic Appleton Organ -Fall 2008

by: Joshua B. Gray

photography by: Jim Powers

For more than 150 years the pipe organ at the Methodist Church has accompanied the hymns sung by its congregation each Sunday, enduring the test of time as an example of master craftsmanship and a symbol of community and faith.

Organ restorer Robert Newton of the Andover Organ Company works inside the organ.

The instrument built in 1831 recently underwent its first complete restoration since it became a permanent fixture in the historic Greek revival structure at the top of Main Street.

Written just above its wind chest (air chamber) and hidden from plain sight are words inscribed in the mahogany with faded pencil: “I was born in year 1898, I am 12 years of age. It is July 13 and have pumped the organ all summer, – Francis Macy, 15 Milk Street.”

The boy was probably one of dozens who over the years spent their summers earning a few cents each Sunday doing the hard work of pumping air into the church organ, a task that one day soon electricity would render unnecessary. Macy’s faint report scratched into the deep red finish of the wood, rarely noticed and less-often read, today serves as a reminder that for generations this building and its storied centerpiece, with its majestic facade, have brought Nantucketers together and welcomed all who would enter.

In 1919, in the aftermath of World War I, that same young boy who years ago had worked up a sweat on the day of his 12th birthday, had his photograph taken on the steps of the very same building in a soldier’s uniform, pictured alongside the other brave men from Nantucket who served their country in that monumental conflict. He stands tall in a dark Navy pea coat and cap among more than 30 others.

Though impossible to tell, some of these young men may have stood alongside Macy before, on those hot summer mornings staring out over the congregation that had gathered together to worship.

Originally built for what is believed to have been the South Congregational Church of Boston by the foremost architect of such instruments in the era, Thomas Appleton, the organ became the congregation’s second when it arrived at 2 Centre St. in the late 1850s. The historical information came about through the due diligence of the chief restorer of the Methodist Church’s organ, Robert Newton.

Newton and the company he has worked for over the past 45 years, the Andover Organ Company of Methuen, Mass., have been taking care of this particular Appleton since the mid 1980s. For some time, said Newton, there was confusion over where this particular instrument had its origin.

Today, when one enters the Methodist Church, the Appleton looms over them at the head of the long center aisle that bisects the building. But when it first arrived on-island and until about 1900, it was positioned in the rear loft of the chapel, now a performance center used by Theatre Workshop of Nantucket. It stands in front of an example of iconic painting called trompe l’oeil, meaning “trick the eye,” that once served as the centerpiece of the chapel. This form of painting was used for many years, in religious works especially, and gives the effect of a three-dimensional image. Though the organ had been built with a single keyboard, additional pipes were added as was another keyboard and a set of foot pedals after arriving on the island.It was thought by the congregation for many years to have come from Boston’s famed Old South Congregational Church (the famed Old South Church) in the heart of the city, but as it turned out, Newton discovered it was built for a church a few miles away in South Boston. There the instrument served faithfully until its transport to Nantucket more than 20 years later. Details on how the massive organ got to Nantucket, Newton said, are foggy at best. It was shipped and then reassembled under the care of another prominent organ company of the time, E. and G.G. Hook of Boston.

Encased in a towering reddish mahogany housing, the organ is one of 10 known Appletons still in existence. According to Newton, only eight of those are operational, seven in the United States and one in Canada.

Newton, nearly 70 now and a veritable encyclopedia on the subject, estimated that the builder together with associates who worked with him, assembled approximately 100 organs in his lifetime and only this handful remain. This may be due to the fact that preservation of such instruments did not begin to gain prominence until the 1950s, he said, adding that the awareness of their historical significance continues to grow to this day.

Considered a fairly small organ, Newton said he recently counted 633 pipes on this particular Appleton. The front facade of the organ contains 23 metal pipes that are painted with 23-karat gold leaf. Behind this ornate front is a veritable maze of metal and wood pipes. The largest pipe in the organ sits in the very rear of the casing, a large square wooden piece that looms over 15 feet high, producing some of the organ’s lowest tones. In contrast, the smallest pipe measures only a half-inch and is made of some tin. The other pipes are mostly lead. Many of the pipes still bear the markings of their original makers. One of the metal pipes, an F# swell open diapason, has the faintly-inscribed marking of the person who originally tuned or “voiced” the pipe using a metal slide that sits on top of each metal piece.

Through the years, extreme temperature, dirt and large amounts of dust, dents in the metal pipes due to pressure affecting the soft metal, and possibly the biggest enemy of the pipe organ, powder post beetles that have chewed into the soft bass wood of the keyboards have contributed to the wear and tear on the instrument.

The Andover company, represented by Newton and several associates, first came to Nantucket last October to renovate the organ. Minor repairs and those done on components too sensitive to move long distances were done here on-island, but much of the organ was taken back to the company’s facility in Methuen where time-intensive processes and many man hours were needed to correct the damage that had that time had incurred.

In late May Newton returned with the restored components ready to re-install, a process that he originally planned to finish by late June, but he realized the work would take additional time. Working six days a week, he and his team installed the finishing touches Thursday, July 24, nearly a month later.

The church organ was played for the first time the following Sunday. Barbara de Zalduondo, a long-time member of the congregation, has been the champion of the church’s organ for many years.

“The Appleton at the Methodist church is once again taking its place in the continuing history of the arts on Nantucket island. It is the only one from this builder that has been in play since its creation. I remember Zenna Giffin and Buelah Pattison told me that they had had the joy of playing the organ on alternate Sundays for 50 years and now Gary Trainor is faithfully following suit. The sound now has a deep blowing resonance and the newly re-gilded pipes are a handsome sight,” de Zalduondo said. “We are grateful to Robert Newton for his professional knowledge and dedication in restoring this fine instrument to pristine condition, and with the leadership of Reverend Nancy Nelson, we especially appreciate the enthusiasm and support we have received from the music lovers throughout the community.”

Nelson, the pastor of the church for the past 13 years, called de Zalduondo “the biggest friend of the Appleton . . . the church member who conscientiously ensured that Bob Newton and the Andover Organ Company was scheduled and paid yearly for organ maintenance.” Also called by Nelson the heroine of the organ, her contribution to the care of the instrument is in large part how this major restoration came to pass.

Susan Jarrell, a parishioner of the island’s Unitarian Church on Orange Street, began what became known as an annual “organ crawl” each Columbus Day weekend, in a procession of island church members and organ aficionados to the various churches that have kept up the use of their organs. The Congregational Church became a part of the crawl in 1993, during the inaugural event.

With this exposure to the public, Nelson said attention was brought to the plight of the church’s aging organ and the condition of the historic building itself.

“Then in 1996, another church member, Gary Morrison, organized the Two Centre Street Restoration Project, Inc., a nonprofit created for the sole purpose, with its secular-plus- church-members board of directors, of fundraising, assessing the needs of, and contracting to address said needs, all for the majestic, historic Methodist Church building,” added Nelson.

Donations to restore the organ started coming in, she said. Here and there, big and small, and at the end of last summer reached $25,000. That amount was then matched by an admirer who first saw the beautiful instrument during one of the annual crawls. Curt Livingston and his family’s charitable foundation promised to match the funds raised and enabled the project to be completed at no cost to church’s relatively small congregation.

This year’s organ crawl will once again take place during Columbus Day weekend Saturday, Oct. 11, and will highlight the fine and historic organs of the Unitarian, Episcopal, Catholic, Congregational and Methodist churches.

While the historical significance of the instrument is profound – it was added to the registry of U.S. National Treasures in large part after attracting the attention of then First Lady Hillary Clinton on her first visit to the island – the personal meaning of the organ to the congregation is more practical than one might imagine. Beyond the appeal of the congregation’s historic building and the artfully-crafted organ, Nelson said that primarily their Appleton serves as a wonderful instrument to accompany hymns “as they sing praises to the glory of God; after all we are a church.”


Joshua B. Gray is an editorial assistant and a writer at The Inquirer and Mirror, Nantucket’s newspaper since 1821.

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