Rebuilt, Relocated, Replaced, Recycled --
The History of the Organs in the First United Methodist Church of Birmingham, Alabama

The new Schantz organ was a source of pride for the congregation in 1960, and they made some of the same provisions for controlling access to the instrument that the church had used sixty years earlier. It's probable that some of the restrictions stemmed from a misunderstanding, though. The rules established by the Music Comittee required those who wanted to play the organ to identify themselves and provide some sort of credentials before they could be given the key to the console. The warranty contract was cited as the reason for making this rigid requirement, and that's the source of the misunderstanding. The clause that required the church to restrict access to the organ to "qualified persons" referred to those people entering the organ proper -- the chambers, where the chests, reservoirs, and pipes were located. The committee misunderstood the phrase, and sought qualifications for those who wanted access to the console -- the "organ" as they understood it.

These well-meant regulations did not mean that others could not play the organ, of course. Lois Seals, organist at the time of installation, and her successors Joe Schreiber and Sam Batt Owens were gracious caretakers of the new organ. Beginning in 1964, a generation of organists studying with Mr. Owens at Birmingham-Southern College were privileged to use the First Church organ for practice, lessons, and recitals. Many of us still remember the excitement we felt the first time we were left alone with this wonderful instrument. It was a sign that we were joining the ranks of those professional church musicians that we admired and wanted to emulate. In this way, the Raleigh W. Greene Organ allowed First Church to serve an educational purpose whose effects are still with us today.

As you might have gathered from earlier pages of this web site, pipe organs are marvelously flexible. Because they are built as large assemblies of different parts, some elements can be changed or replaced without disturbing the unity of the entire instrument. Although the Schantz organ remained in used for forty years, it was modified several times, both in appearance and in its tonal properties.

One of the first changes was the replacement of the Bombarde pipes. The ones Schantz first installed were "hooded," and they looked like the one on the right in this photograph. That might not look like anything special to you, unless you've crawled through a lot of organ chambers, but consider the top of the pipe -- it's curved over to the left.That's the end where the sound is projected from a reed pipe like this one. In the First Church organ, those pipes were "aimed" at the congregation, and in 1965 they were replaced with straight pipes, like the one on the left. A few years experience with the hooded pipes in the dry acoustic of the church meant the congregation was ready for this small change.

During the next thirty-five years, other tonal and mechanical changes were made to the Raleigh Greene Organ, most of them -- like the change in the shape of the Bombarde pipes -- not obvious to the congregation. Although organists are often distracted by stoplists and descriptions of the workings of an organ, the instrument's appearance in a room is always important. In 1972, when the church had major revisions made to the West end of the building, the interior was repainted. At that time, two small modifications meant that the organ and choir loft -- the backdrop for the pulpit, if you will -- also changed.

The first of these changes was the final removal of the brass rail and curtain that had served as a modesty screen for the choir. A skillfully executed extension of the wooden rail was added in its place as a permanent screen for the choir. In recognition of the important role the organ played in the musical life of both First Church and Birmingham-Southern College, the center panel of the extended rail was made removable, so that the organist could be seen clearly during recitals. This rail remains in place today, and the center panel is still removed when the organ plays a particularly important role in a service or concert.

The other change is barely noticeable because of the different lighting that was installed at the same time. The upper levels of swell shutters for both Swell and Choir divisions were clearly visible when the Schantz was installed, and some members of the congregation found it distracting to see them moving while the organ was being played. In fact, one assistant organist of the mid 1960's would occasionally close the shutters, then turn the power off as he left the bench during the sermon. As the wind pressure slowly faded, the shutters would mysteriously open, without anyone being at the console. In 1972 a dull brown grill cloth was installed in front of these shutters, so that their motion was no longer visible -- with or without a player being seated at the bench!

© Copyright 2001 AD, James H. Cook