Churches aim to restore organ after terror attacks

By Jeff Martin
Associated Press / May 29, 2011

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JOHNS CREEK, Ga.—The soaring sounds of a pipe organ silenced when dust from the collapsing World Trade Center invaded its church sanctuary nearly a decade ago could soon fill a place of worship once again.

The historic instrument was dismantled and put in storage days after the terror attacks and hasn't been played since.

Now, as the 10-year anniversary of the attacks approaches, Trinity Wall Street is donating the instrument to Johns Creek United Methodist Church outside Atlanta, leaders from both churches confirmed this week.

"There are many who have prayed that it will rise again and bring glorious music once more," the Rev. D. B. Shelnutt Jr. told his congregation at Johns Creek on a recent Sunday.

He described the organ, built in Boston in 1846 and renovated several times in the years since, as "the Rolls-Royce of pipe organs."

The hope is to have it in place about a year from now, in a new sanctuary being built by the metro Atlanta church, said the Rev. Beth Brown Shugart, pastor of worship and music at Johns Creek United Methodist.

"We're just beside ourselves, we're so happy," Shugart said.

Randy Elkins, the organist at the Johns Creek church, had an idea there might be an instrument somewhere that needed a new home, and he began exploring possibilities, Shugart said.

Soon, the Johns Creek church leaders were in touch with organ builder John Bishop, executive director of the Massachusetts-based Organ Clearing House, which works to preserve vintage organs. Bishop is now working to refurbish the instrument at his workshop in New England.

A few days after Sept. 11, Bishop inspected Trinity's organ and noticed the distinct smell of jet fuel in the church offices. Dust had invaded the sanctuary, and there were fears it damaged the instrument.

After "inhaling pulverized concrete and steel" from the terror attacks, Trinity's organ was harmed extensively, according to a historical account of the instrument at Trinity's website.

But the precise extent of the damage is not yet known, partly because the instrument and its pipes have not yet been fully cleaned.

Still, Bishop said the organ was positioned in the building in such a way that it's unlikely significant amounts of the dust got into the instrument.

In the coming months, brushes will be used to clean the pipes, and a vacuum will suck out any dust.

The organ's 8,000 pipes range from the size of a pinky finger to some 18 feet and 20 feet high, Shugart said. It was stored in about 300 crates, and took three semi-trucks to move all of the pieces of the enormous instrument, she said.

It will cost the Johns Creek congregation $1 million to $1.5 million to have the instrument redesigned and installed in the new sanctuary, Shelnutt said. He estimated its value at $4 million to $5 million.

Trinity bought a new digital organ after Sept. 11.

Parts of the older organ had been stored in space the New York church has been developing into a community outreach program called Charlotte's Place, so donating the organ will clear space for the program, said Julian Wachner, the church's director of music and the arts.

Wachner had a view of the World Trade Center from his bedroom while growing up in the city.

Later, as director of music and the arts at Trinity Wall Street, he said he hoped the pipe organ "could have some sort of resurrection, some sort of future."

Now, he sees a "beautiful symmetry" in how the plans to donate the organ to Johns Creek are coming together. In the coming months, officials will work to design the instrument's new sanctuary.

"They always say the building is part of the instrument," says John Koster, conservator and curator of keyboard instruments at the National Music Museum in Vermillion, S.D., and a professor of music at the University of South Dakota.

Shelnutt recounted the organ's history during a recent sermon at his Georgia church, where he announced it would be given to the congregation.

"For years, great organists who have played this renowned instrument have asked the question, `Will it ever rise again?" he said. "Is there a tomorrow for this great instrument?'"