Clearing the old pipes in the Kimball organ at the State Office Building
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Clearing the old pipes in the Kimball organ at the State Office Building

Jan 23, 2024

Michael Ruppert inspects percussion instrumentation that's part of the setup for the 1928 Kimball Theatre Pipe Organ in the State Office Building. Ruppert, co-owner of Rose City Organ Builders in Oregon, spent two days this with with fellow co-owner Christopher Nordwall tuning and restoring the organ to playable condition.

Tuners revive 1928 organ that's been idle for three years; lunchtime concerts may resume next week

Going unplayed for more than three years in the atrium of the Alaska State Office Building isn't the worst thing that could happen to the 1928 Kimball Theatre Pipe Organ that has been there since 1976.

But, it certainly added to the challenge for two men who arrived this week to tune and restore it to a condition fit for restarting public performances as soon as next week.

"We got at least 20 notes that weren't playing right yesterday," said Michael Ruppert, co-owner of Rose City Organ Builders in Portland, Oregon, during his second day of revival work Tuesday. "We got a dozen notes that we’re playing that weren't supposed to."

Ruppert and fellow co-owner Christopher Nordwall spent a total of about 12 hours Monday and Tuesday inspecting the organ's 548 pipes (and other instrumentation such as percussion), the two keyboard consoles and hundreds of connecting wires that in large part are the nearly century-old originals. That means a lot of extra-fine detail work on an instrument whose pipes are up to eight feet long.

"We tuned everything yesterday," Nordwall said Tuesday. "We have to go back and tune again because this just thing hasn't been played very much."

The hope of the tuners and local residents involved with the organ's well-being is that a concert on the revived organ can occur either Friday, June 9, or the following Friday.

J. Allan MacKinnon, one of two current Juneau residents who have performed such concerts for many years, said Wednesday he wanted to practice in the coming days first — outside of normal work hours at the building — to reacquaint himself with the organ and determine what songs to play at the debut show.

"I won't have to relearn it," he said. "I just have to go through some old music I’ve got and decide what to use for the public."

One limitation is the piano-style console to the side of the main multi-keyboard console isn't functioning, "so I can't play some of the honky-tonk I used to do," MacKinnon said.

Photos by Mark Sabbatini / Juneau Empire A 1928 Kimball Theatre Pipe Organ in the atrium of the State Office Building is played by Christopher Nordwall on Tuesday as he and Michael Ruppert work on restoring it to a condition suitable for public performances. The two tuners were only able to work on the organ during hours when the building was officially closed.

Lunchtime concerts every Friday were a landmark culture event in the atrium that drew large crowds of state employees, other residents and tourists. But the onset of the COVID-19 pandemic in March of 2020 halted performances on the instrument, which was already due for significant maintenance.

"We’ve kind of for years now been putting band-aids on it and relying on the creativity of the organist to work around dead notes," said Ellen Carrlee, conservator for the Alaska State Museum, the owner of the organ.

Efforts to raise awareness about the maintenance need and explore fundraising possibilities were made by community group Friends of the Alaska State Library, Archives and Museum. Carrlee said the concept is a "network of care" approach that involves key community members beyond museum staff to guide the effort, but because it was launched before the pandemic the efforts were disrupted.

Mark Sabbatini / Juneau Empire Christopher Nordwall plays a test song on the 1928 Kimball Theatre Pipe Organ in the State Office Building on Tuesday.

Meanwhile, letting the organ remain idle due the pandemic contributed to the deterioration of its condition since playing it helps keep it in tune and the mechanisms functional, according to T.J. Duffy, the other Juneau resident currently authorized by the museum to perform on the organ.

"To me the worst thing one can do to a musical instrument is NOT play it," Duffy wrote last year when post-pandemic efforts to restore the organ started. "There was no vandalism or construction issues. It's just old and there is no money to give it the consistent routine maintenance it requires. In my nearly 13 years of association with the organ it had only been tuned twice."

One advantage for Kimball organ's placement in the State Office Building is it's constantly climate-controlled environment, whereas a similar organ in a church might be subject to large temperature and humidity variations if the heating/cooling systems in the building are only used once or twice a week, Nordwall said.

Michael Ruppert, foreground repairs a fitting in a percussion mechanism for the 1928 Kimball Theatre Pipe Organ in the State Office Building on Tuesday.

Carrlee said she asked ("begged") Nordwall and Ruppert to tune the organ, even though their territory generally doesn't extend to Alaska, based on discussions with other community members involved in the project. Among other things, she said, it was noted Nordwall's father Jonas performed on the organ for a fundraising event in 2019.

"There's been talk of like, mothballing it, taking it apart, putting it in storage," she said. "And then it would just die."

The two experts said their two-day visit is far from what a complete restoration would involve — a roughly eight-month process where it would be shipped to Oregon and rebuilt at a cost of $150,000 to $200,000 — but it is possible to ensure experienced organists can perform on it with reasonable confidence.

"There's probably poking at it for a couple of days and trying to do some band-aiding to get it where it's pretty playable," Ruppert said. "Reliable wouldn't be in that sentence."

Christopher Nordwall, left, and Michael Ruppert inspect the wiring of the piano-style keyboard component of the 1928 Kimball Theatre Pipe Organ in the State Office Building on Tuesday. The component is not currently wired to the main apparatus of the instrument, so it will not be playable if performances resume as expected this month.

The checklist for "tuning" the organ includes tasks such as cleaning the contacts for the various components, ensuring the "expression shutters" function so the organist can control the volume and inspecting each of the five wires attached to each key of the instrument. Some of the wires still have their original cotton protective coating, which age has made fragile and fire regulations no longer allow when making repairs (necessitating plastic coating for wires instead).

Then there was silencing the notes that were playing by themselves and getting the notes that wouldn't respond to keys to resound through the vast space of the atrium. Nordwall said even if the wiring and other mechanisms aren't perfect for each key, "the good organists out there learn how to play around it pretty quickly."

"If the key itself doesn't work then nothing works," Nordwall said. "But if it's just one pipe of a particular ring…then hopefully you put it on another tab."

The 1928 Kimball Theatre Pipe Organ in the State Office Building has 548 pipes ranging from pencil-size to eight feet in length. (Mark Sabbatini / Juneau Empire)

While reviving the organ and noontime concerts is a resounding indication of getting past the problems of the pandemic, Carrlee said there are still long-term concerns about the condition of the organ and locals qualified to play it as the current musicians age. Each is a separate challenge since youngsters generally aren't taking Kimball pipe organ lessons and raising the funds for a proper restoration will involve a large-scale effort.

"If we’re coming up on its 100th anniversary what does it need to exist for another 50 years?" she said.

• Contact Mark Sabbatini at [email protected] or (907) 957-2306.

Scan to watch one-minute video of the 1928 Kimball organ at the State Office Building being tuned, repaired and then played.