April 27, 2013

Portland's municipal organ's restoration on track

By Bob Keyes bkeyes@pressherald.com
Staff Writer

TOLLAND, Conn. — Milovan Popovic holds a tiny metal pipe from Portland’s Kotzschmar Organ in the palm of his hand.

click image to enlarge

Adam Lagocki works on The Console of the organ as he and other technicians work on refurbishing the Kotzschmar Organ from Merrill Auditorium in Portland, Maine at Foley-Baker, Inc. in Toland, Connecticut.

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Technician David DeBlois adjusts and connects internal barrow pull-down actions on a manual chest for the solo division of the organ as he and other technicians work on refurbishing the Kotzschmar Organ from Merrill Auditorium in Portland, Maine at Foley-Baker, Inc. in Toland, Connecticut.

Staff photo by Gordon Chibroski

Additional Photos Below

It is no larger than a pencil, and seems just as delicate. He blows into an opening, and the pipe emits a whistle of air.

“This,” Popovic said, “is what the organ is all about. It’s such a beautiful sound.”

Known in the organ business as a voicer, Popovic makes an organ sing. He and other technicians with Foley-Baker Inc., the Connecticut-based company hired to refurbish Portland’s century-old organ, have spent most of the past year cleaning, fixing and refreshing the grand instrument. It’s only half-finished.

It’s a task that’s being watched not only in Maine, but around the world. The Kotzschmar, located at Merrill Auditorium in Portland City Hall, is one of only two of its kind left in the United States — a turn-of-the-20th-century pipe organ that still serves as a municipal organ and has a paid municipal organist.

It’s one of the most famous organs in North America, and one of the signature components of Portland arts and cultural life.

Michael Barone, who hosts the American Public Media radio program “Pipe Dreams,” said the Kotzschmar is known worldwide in organ circles.

“Because it has been used consistently through the past century and because it has generated notoriety not just in Portland but around the United States and indeed worldwide, it is one of the landmark pipe organs in the United States,” Barone said.

And once the massive refurbishment of all its parts is completed — the target date is summer 2014 — the Kotzschmar will sound like it was originally intended, a sound that hasn’t been heard properly in more than half a century.

Emblem of a bygone age

The organ was dedicated in August 1912 and came as a gift to the city by from Cyrus Curtis, who grew up in Portland and made his fortune in the publishing business. Among other things, he published the Ladies’ Home Journal and the Saturday Evening Post, as well as several large newspapers.

Curtis named the organ for his friend, Hermann Kotzschmar, a native of Germany who came to Portland in the mid-1800s and stayed in the city until he died in 1908. He taught music here and was among the first arts advocates in the city.

Kotzschmar lived with Curtis’ parents, who named their son in honor of their musical friend: He was christened Cyrus Hermann Kotzschmar Curtis.

The organ was the first municipal organ built in the U.S., and Portland remains one of two cities in America that owns an organ and employs a municipal organist. San Diego is the other. Almost all other municipal organs have been lost to time and neglect.

Portland almost lost the Kotzschmar as well. Many observers think the organ would not be around today if not for the efforts of the Portland-based nonprofit group Friends of the Kotzschmar Organ, which has provided maintenance and upkeep on the instrument for three decades and spearheaded the current restoration.

The organ was disassembled and removed from Merrill Auditorium last summer after the instrument’s centennial celebration. The reinstallation process will begin in earnest this June, though it will not be completed for another year.

The Friends of the Kotzschmar Organ plans to celebrate the organ’s reinstallation in August 2014.

A legacy of wear and tear

Foley-Baker got the contract for the Kotzschmar restoration because of its expertise. There aren’t many companies in the country that could do the job, and Foley-Baker’s staff has a long history with pipe organs as well as an association with the company that built the Kotzschmar originally — the Austin Organ Co. of Hartford, Conn.

(Continued on page 2)

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Additional Photos

click image to enlarge

Technician Mee Racz, preps an offset chest for refinishing as he and a crew of technicians work on refurbishing the Kotzschmar Organ from Merrill Auditorium in Portland, Maine at Foley-Baker, Inc. in Toland, Connecticut.


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