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Ellis Auditorium Pipe Organs

1924 organ in Ellis Auditorium finds new life in Bartlett church

Memphis Business Journal - October 18, 2002 by Scott Shepard

It takes six months for a pipe organ to settle down, so it won't be until April 27 when Bartlett United Methodist Church dedicates the 1924 Kimball organ rescued from the South Hall of Ellis Auditorium.

The organ, a grand instrument to be sure, is the crown jewel of the church's new 1,000-seat sanctuary, an audacious $7 million project intended to stake out a part of the city that's lately been stagnant. The decision to build on the western edge of Bartlett came only after a long internal discussion about moving east, to be closer to the homes of members.

"Economically, moving was a bad business decision because we have so much here already," says David Lewis, executive minister of Bartlett Methodist. "Also, what does it say to the community if we move?"

With the decision to stay put came a host of other issues. Hemmed in on all sides, the church has been buying up neighboring properties and now has almost 20 acres on both sides of Stage Road. In designing a new sanctuary, architect Lynn Burke of McGehee/Nicholson/-Burke Architects PC was given a long list of criteria, starting with the 460-seat sanctuary built in 1927.

Members wanted the building design to continue in the colonial style, and although the sanctuary is twice as big, they stipulated that a person in the back row should be no more than 20 feet farther away than if they were in the back of the old building. Beyond that was one other adamant requirement.

"They wanted it to look like a church," Burke says.

The result is an imposing building with a slim, 50-foot setback. Burke brought the colonial columns inside and used Latin crosses as structural elements for the massive stained glass windows.

The windows are designed by Craig Thompson of Disciple Design, a member of the congregation. Burke also copied the cast brass cross hanging over the altar of the old room, but made it larger to help recreate the intimacy.

A major issue from the beginning was finding an organ. A new organ for that size building can cost more than $1 million and take three years to deliver. Lewis had a budget of half that amount.

"We thought about the old organ, but that's still a working sanctuary and it needs an organ," he says. "You almost can't negotiate with organ companies."

Because the building required a huge instrument, every bid came in far above the budget. Burke warned against a lower-priced electronic organ, which purists often describe as a great imitation of an indescribable sound.

"A pipe organ gets better over the years, whereas an electronic unit sounds great to start with but 10 years later it's not the same quality," Burke says.

 The church hired a consultant, Emily McAlister, who suggested they look at the two organs that were once in Ellis Auditorium. Before the building was torn down to make room for an expanded Cook Convention Center a private group, Friends of the Organ, had raised money to have the instruments disassembled and cataloged. They were suffering water damage in a storage room at the convention center.

Lewis started with his parishioner, Memphis City Council member Brent Taylor, who sought the aid of council member Florence Leffler. Next, Pierre Landaiche, general manager of the convention center, became involved.

"The real rub was nobody knew who owned the organ," Lewis says. "The Exchange Club in 1924 raised $10,000, and school children came up with another $8,000 in nickels and dimes."

The final solution: Bartlett Methodist gave the city and county a gift of $18,000 in recognition of the original gifts, and promised to restore the organ as accurately as possible. It cost $450,000 to restore it and make building changes to accommodate it. Restoration was done by Milnar Organ Co. of Eagleton, Tenn. Most of the organ is not visible, with pipes hidden behind their original wooden shades in four rooms concealed by screens.

"The organ chamber was greatly enlarged, by at least 100%," Burke says. "It's huge. Much bigger than we would normally put in a building that size. Modern organs are much more compact."

The console itself is much larger, so more changes were needed in the chancel. And since it takes a lot of air to move through all those pipes, the organ's air pump and 20-horsepower motor needed a separate room with plenty of sound insulation. The pump sounds like a jet engine turbine when it starts up. Despite thousands of pounds of lead and zinc pipes, there was no need for additional structural supports.

Burke also had to study the original plans of Ellis, so the church sanctuary would be true to the original sound of the organ.

"I'm interested in acoustics," he says. "You try to add textures to the walls so they become reflective and spread the sound. We keep everything hard and reflective except the rear wall."

The sanctuary itself will hold its first service Nov. 10. After the organ has had time to vibrate and settle in, a crew from Milnar will return to retune it. The church has put out the word that organists from across Memphis are welcome to visit and experience the instrument.

"We don't look at ourselves as the owner of this instrument," Lewis says. "We are custodians of an important piece of local history, and we want to be good stewards."

CONTACT staff writer Scott Shepard at 259-1724 or sshepard@bizjournals.com