Between 1872 and 1886 Hook and Hastings of Roxbury, Massachusetts installed five tracker-action organs in Portland. One of these organs was installed in 1883 in Calvary Presbyterian Church, now The Old Church. This “tracker-action” organ – one that uses mechanical connections, no electricity, to produce a unique pipe organ sound – was hand-pumped.
After installation, the organ was used regularly for Presbyterian church services. By mid-century, the instrument had lost some of its natural tonal beauty. Two key ranks of pipes, the trumpet and oboe, were missing, and two others had been poorly altered, thus reducing the musical effectiveness and range of repertoire. Cosmetic alternation to the case included several coats of paint, and perishable parts had naturally deteriorated. An electric blower had been installed around 1920. Fortunately, no mechanical alteration ever occurred.
In 1969 the church building, a fine example of “Carpenter Gothic” architecture, was saved from demolition by a group of devoted citizens. The Old Church Society, Inc., a private nonprofit group, was formed to purchase and restore the building and open it for public use and enjoyment. It was at that time that the organ’s historic significance was discovered. Since then, careful records have been kept and ongoing efforts sustained to reclaim the organ for its historic and musical merit. In 1976 the organ was cleaned and a few of its worst problems were corrected.
Several organs built in the 19th century reside in the Northwest, but The Old Church organ is the oldest Northwest tracker-action organ in its original location. Even more important, the organ never was converted to electricity, the popular practice that swept the country during the first half of the 20th century. The decision not to convert the instrument, most likely prompted by lack of funds and interest, saved the very qualities so valued and rare today.
The Old Church organ is a fine example of the work of Hook and Hastings, a prominent organ building firm in 19th century North America. It has an authentic Victorian-era pipe organ sound and is valued for its intrinsic musicality and as a splendid vehicle for performing a wide range of music, old and new. It is also a treasured link to the past, helping us to better understand the art of organ-building.
The primary space inside The Old Church is the 300-seat auditorium, a warm and inviting space blessed with outstanding acoustics. The organ is the main focus, standing front and center, flanked by beautiful Povey Bros. stained glass windows and facing a semicircle of curved wooden pews. Since 1969, the public has enjoyed over 700 free organ concerts. Our weekly sack lunch concert series continues to feature the organ regularly.
The organ was fully restored in 1997, in time to be featured at the national convention of the Organ Historical Society, that year held in Portland. This international conclave of organ players, builders and fans agreed unanimously that both the sound and appearance of the instrument were beautifully restored to their original glories. This work was performed by Richard Bond, of Bond Organ Co., Portland, Oregon. Ron Wagner, of R. Wagner Co., Portland, restored the stenciling of the pipes to their original ornate Victorian design, discovered beneath layers of gold paint during restoration.
The restoration involved replacing perishable parts which were not replaced in 1976, and giving the organ a general mechanical adjustment. Missing parts were fabricated and replaced. Some tonal changes were reversed, restoring the original character of the sound. The oboe stop, mysteriously missing for many years, was replaced by an authentic set from a defunct Hook & Hastings organ in Nova Scotia.
With proper maintenance, the organ should function for decades before needing another restoration. If you would like to assist in the upkeep of the organ or the continued restoration and maintenance of this lovely historic site, please become a member of The Old Church Society. Your gift is tax-deductible. Thank you for your interest and support.
The stop list of the organ, identical to a specification number 11 in a 19th century Hook and Hastings catalog, is as follows:
8′ Open Diapson
2 ⅔’ Twelfth
III rks. Mixture
8′ Stopped Diapson
4′ Flauto Traverso
Great to Pedal
Swell to Pedal
Swell to Great
16′ Open Diapason