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Musical marvel old pipe organ, stuck in El Dorado County warehouse, needs a home

An old pipe organ is stored at the El Dorado County Fairground in Placerville. The organ is one of the grandest and last surviving works of a Goteborg, Sweden, designer, John Bergstrom, who came to San Francisco in 1864 and manufactured dozens of exquisite pipe organs for churches before his death in 1907. Many were destroyed in the San Francisco earthquake and fires. The one in Placerville was believed to have been in the historic Placerville Federated Church for generations. But in recent decades, it’s been in storage – and disrepair – at the county fairground. Now fairground officials wants it moved – and a Rancho Cordova music professor and organ designer is advocating for its restoration and display elsewhere.

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Musical marvel, stuck in El Dorado County warehouse, needs a home | The Sacramento Bee The Sacramento Bee

Musical marvel, stuck in El Dorado County warehouse, needs a home | The Sacramento Bee The Sacramento Bee

Musical marvel, stuck in El Dorado County warehouse, needs a home | The Sacramento Bee The Sacramento Bee

Musical marvel, stuck in El Dorado County warehouse, needs a home | The Sacramento Bee The Sacramento Bee

Musical marvel, stuck in El Dorado County warehouse, needs a home | The Sacramento Bee The Sacramento Bee

In 1865, an immigrant from Goteberg, Sweden, with a grand vision for music opened a modest cabinet-making shop at 24th and Mission streets in San Francisco.

John Bergstrom wouldn’t be long known for cabinets. He became renowned as a designer and manufacturer of exquisite pipe organs. They were towering creations – virtual cathedrals of sound – that reached toward the heavens with gold-leafed hardwood and intricately stenciled and painted musical pipes.

Aided by water pressure, his organs’ sophisticated labyrinth of keys, pedals and pumps powered levers, bellows and air valves into a stirring symphony. By the mid-1880s, Bergstrom had built an estimated 66 pipe organs. His wonders of craftsmanship became musical and spiritual hearths in churches from San Francisco to British Columbia and Mexico to Hawaii.

Now volunteers are trying to find a new home for one of his last surviving creations.

For more than 50 years, a majestic pipe organ built by Bergstrom about 1885 has sat forlornly in a warehouse at the El Dorado County Fairground in Placerville. Few people get to see the 20-foot-tall marvel that occupies some 400 square feet, with its pipes nearly touching the ceiling.

The organ, sold to the Placerville Federated Church for $2,500 in 1904, is occasionally a backdrop for fairground events such as mineral and gem or home accessory shows that are held in the warehouse known as “the organ building.” Often it is merely covered by a drape.

Fair officials say the organ hasn’t had a suitable exhibit site – or perhaps even been played – since it was moved to the fairground after the Federated Church was leveled in Placerville’s historic downtown about 1960. Fair officials say the organ simply takes up too much space and they want it moved – though only after a suitable location is found.

“It’s just not serving anybody here,” said Kathy Jurgens of the El Dorado County Fair Association. “It’s just kind of sits. It’s sad, really sad.”

The Fair Association and the El Dorado County Historical Museum are now reaching out to churches, museums and preservationist groups to see if anyone has a suitable space for the pipe organ. They are also seeking to raise donations to have Bergstrom’s work disassembled, rebuilt and repaired so that it can be displayed – and played again – in a setting offering the grandeur that it deserves.

In an age when few churches or public facilities can accommodate something of such scale, it may be a difficult quest.

“It’s a beautiful item. It’s historically significant to Placerville. But it needs to go to a good home where it can be played and appreciated,” said Mary Cory, director of the El Dorado County Historical Museum. “It is a spectacular artifact.”

Lee Lovallo, a music professor at National University in Sacramento who has restored historic pipe organs, said the Placerville pipe organ is believed to be one of the last four surviving organs built by Bergstrom, who died in 1909.

One other Bergstrom pipe organ, a smaller version meticulously restored, remains as the centerpiece in the sanctuary of the First Congregational Church of Sonoma. Many others were believed to have been destroyed in the 1906 San Francisco earthquake and resulting fires – just two years after the Placerville church took delivery of its organ.

Lovallo said the design of the Placerville pipe organ, built before organs ran on electricity, was a technological marvel of the times.

“He (Bergstrom) brought a high degree of craftsmanship, No. 1,” Lovallo said. “No. 2, his technology was entirely mechanical. The organ was pumped by hand or by a water motor, using water pressure to run a bellows. The motion of the organ player’s fingers transported to levers all throughout the instrument. A web of connectors opened the air to individual pipes.

“In their day, these organs were the space shuttle of their century.”

In this day, Lovallo said it could take $10,000 just to disassemble and pack up the pipe organ, plus untold costs “to restore it and make it playable again.”

Efforts to bring the historic pipe organ back to life have drawn the attention of national preservationists and organ enthusiasts, including James R. Stettner, president of Puget Sound Pipe Organs in Seattle.

Stettner, who said the Placerville organ “is likely the largest surviving Bergstrom,” wrote Cory a letter that urged her to at last find the work the place of honor that it deserves.

“The ultimate reason for my writing, aside from the history lesson, is to encourage you and the El Dorado County Historical Museum to please, PLEASE cherish the significant treasure you hold and also to encourage you to explore avenues of fundraising to have this organ restored and made available to be heard and enjoyed again,” he wrote.

Though there is no suitable space at the local fairground or county museum, Cory said she hopes Bergstrom’s creation, once suitably restored, may someday play its sweet music in or near Placerville. Regardless, she said, it needs a home somewhere.

“It makes me sad to think that it’s not out there where people can appreciate it and enjoy it,” she said.

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That thing is huge. It would need a lot of space to have a home. 

Plus untold costs “to restore it and make it playable again.”

Yes, and apparently it has not been played in a long time, like over 50 years!

So it needs someone who has a lot of time to tinker with it too.

Seems like an impossible combination: time, space, money, and desire to work on a pipe organ. 

I can not find a video of any of these organs being played, but did locate the one at the Congregational church of Sonoma (much smaller).

organpipes_CU.jpg  First Congregational Church of Sonoma, CA

When the move was made into the first church on Broadway, the congregation got its first pipe organ -- the gift of Mrs. Sophia Craig, one of the church's first organizers. Then again in July 1897, Sophia Craig came forward and presented a new pipe organ -- "a model of beauty and exquisitely lovely in tone," according to an account in the Sonoma Index-Tribune. William Hyde, "the silver-tongued choir leader" for a number of years, performed on the keyboard on the occasion of its dedication. The news account further stated that, "On July 30, Kate Hutchinson of San Francisco will preside at the instrument, along with other musical talent in the evening's entertainment. The nominal sum of 25¢ will be charged for admission." But in the long run, it was Natalie Hope Davis who played the organ for all services for a period of twenty years without pay. She and Hannah Appleton (Carrie Burlingame's mother) in collaboration, rehearsed and presented many beautiful cantatas, which kept the treasury of the Ladies Aid replenished. Meanwhile, in a cubbyhole behind the organ, young Horace Appleton sat through the lengthy services pumping the organ by hand. He was the first of many young lads assigned to that post before a motor was installed. Their initials carved into the wall remain as a monument to their tour of duty.

Today, that organ is regarded as a rare treasure, the last of the fully manual organs built by John Bergstrom & Sons in San Francisco. It was almost lost sometime in the 1950s, when pressure was brought to bear to install a Hammond organ in its place, but organist Daniel Ruggles campaigned to keep the beauty. The decorative Victorian-design pipes were repainted by June Townsend in 1960.

In April 1969, Sonoma was honored by the presence of Alexander Schreiner, master organist from Salt Lake City, and the Index-Tribune lost control of adjectives in describing his appearance. "He gave three superb recitals and his delightful warm personality and the charm of his attractive wife genuinely impressed everyone they met, while the inspired music Dr. Schreiner produced swept through the Valley of the Moon like a cool breeze on a warm summer day. We did not have the pleasure of hearing his program at the Congregational Church, but we understand the little old organ never sounded better. Dr. Schreiner says it is a well-built instrument, properly placed within the four walls of the room, and that the mid-Victorian pattern on the pipes in beautiful. He congratulated the church in keeping it in excellent condition."

In June 1988, the delegates to the Organ Historical Society in San Francisco made a special journey to Sonoma to see and listen to the Bergstrom, and determined then that the organ "is probably the only instrument of this type on the Pacific Coast to remain unaltered."

The organ has had its problems, mainly due to old age -- pedals sticking, keyboard not reliable, a blower blowing noisily. But under the direction of organist JoAnne Connor Metzger, it has been brought up to a high standard. It remains a stunning centerpiece of the sanctuary.

I can not find the organ being played, but I believe that is the organist JoAnne Connor Metzger directing the handbell group, with the Bergstrom organ in the background.

They used to be a staple in pizza places too.

Ever hear of "Pizza and Pipes"?

Yep ;)

Heh, sometimes I forget what you remember. 

It's too bad it's so prohibitively expensive. I think people would like that revitalized. 

I think someone could probably get it for free, as long as they promised to do right by it, and have it properly restored.  Maybe a museum?  I wish I could hear what it sounds like, could give ideas of where it could fit in.  Are the Wurlitzers electric?  This one being before electricity might sound very different.

Yeah, Wurlitzers are electric so this probably sounds different. 

A museum is the most likely candidate. 

National Shrine of St. Francis of Assisi, San Francisco, CA

"Furnishings for the new church were regularly acquired from 1860 to 1872. Probably in 1867, the parish bought a small two manual and pedal organ built by Mayer which he had previously rented to Grace Cathedral. In 1883, that organ was sold or given to St. Vincent's Church in Vallejo where it lasted until 1940. The Mayer organ was removed to make way for the largest instrument St. Francis was to ever enjoy. Built by John Bergstrom, another early San Francisco builder, the organ was of three manuals and pedals with perhaps 35 sets of pipes, nearly twice the size of our present instrument. It was further distinguished by having its music rack illumined by two gas jets.

Our Bergstrom organ set standards for all of San Francisco. But on April 20, 1906, during the third day of the Great Fire, that stellar organ melted and burned with the rest of the church."

So pretty much the only places these days with them are big churches and baseball stadiums. 

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