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A South Charlotte Church Gets A New Organ With A Rich History

Providence United Methodist Church in south Charlotte has a new organ. That isn’t extraordinary news in itself. But the new organ is actually extraordinary. 

The instrument is an Aeolian-Skinner, what some people call “the Rolls-Royce of organs." Think: Steinway pianos or Stradivarius violins. But it had never been a good fit for the Kennedy Center.

Credit Duncan McFadyen / WFAE
The new organ at Providence United Methodist Church in Charlotte spent the first forty years of its life at the Kennedy Center in Washington, D.C.

Construction delays and high inflation forced the designers to scale it down before it was finished in the early 70's. The organ struggled to produce the sound needed to fill the large concert hall. In the mid-90's, the Kennedy Center tried to give the organ some more kick. It renovated the hall to enhance acoustics. That failed. The Kennedy Center finally removed the organ two years ago. The ordeal turned out to be Charlotte’s gain.

It all started at the end of 2011. An organ builder in Georgia knew the church was raising money for a new organ, and he heard about one that might interest the church. It turns out that organ spent the first 40 years of its life at the Kennedy Center in Washington, D.C. Every president since Nixon has heard it. Music Director Adam Ward got butterflies in his stomach.

“I immediately called the person that was going to head up the fundraising," he recalls, "and he said, ‘this is incredible; do it!’” 

The organ builder who made the first call to the church is Phil Parkey. He and his crew have been on the job since May, installing the organ in its new home. Two new cases hold a row of large, shiny pipes. Behind the cases are two rooms, jam-packed with the inner workings of the organ. Over 3,400 pipes in all. Some of them are smaller than a pencil. You could barely wrap your arms largest ones. They top out at 16 feet. Parkey’s shop installed new air blowers to power their sound.  

Credit Duncan McFadyen / WFAE
Behind the new cases, there are more than 3,000 pipes.

The installation is nearly complete. Parkey and his crew are now tuning and voicing the organ to fit the church. He plays scales on the keyboard, carefully listening for notes that stick out.

“We have some loud notes in this area," he says as he stops and plays the notes again, "but we have some soft notes in this area, so as we get everything into position, one of the things we’re going to focus on is making sure the notes are consistent from bottom to top; that we don’t have peaks and valleys.” 

It’s a tedious process. For one key on the organ, there can be as many as five pipes playing at one time. Parkey carries a bag of more than a dozen different files, razors and hammers to make minute adjustments.

“Sometimes the adjustments we make can’t even be seen by the naked eye,” he says.

Credit Duncan McFadyen / WFAE
Organ builder Phil Parkey makes minute adjustments to pipes as small as a pencil and as large at 16 feet.

The organ's sound gets louder and more complex when you pull out more stops. Those are the round handles on either side of the keyboards organists use to select which pipes play. More stops, more pipes. Pull out all the stops? Well, you get the idea. Phil Parkey says this organ has 59 stops. This is just seven of them.


Longtime choir member Gratia Wiley says the congregation will need some time to get used to the power of the new organ.

“People will say ‘oh, it’s so loud,’" she says, looking to Ward, "so we were saying ‘we must break it in gently,’ after the small organ that we’ve had for all these fifty years.”

The organ project cost Providence United Methodist $1.6 million. That includes new heating and air conditioning to keep the temperature and humidity in the sanctuary consistent. Big swings in either can wreak havoc on the tuning.

If the church had done the same thing with a brand-new organ, Ward says it would’ve been more than $3 million. But, for him, it’s not really about the money.

“This is something substantial," he says.

In a word, it’s history.

Providence United Methodist will debut the new organ with a recital on Friday, September 6 at 7 p.m.