Kansas City, Kan. The first time Rosi Penner Kaufman set eyes on the pipe organ now in Rainbow Mennonite Church, she saw mostly dirt and grime.
The organ had been neglected for more than a year, left in an abandoned church in Troy, N.Y., like an old piece of furniture.
“You really kind of had to look to see the beauty that was underneath,” said Kaufman, Rainbow Mennonite’s music director. “It took a little bit of dreaming.”
But Kaufman could dream, and she knew that the 1869 E. & G.G. Hook pipe organ that she had just played was right for her Kansas City, Kan., church.
What she and the congregation didn’t know was that a legal challenge, a 1,300-mile move, and a 3 1/2-year restoration awaited before the organ would make it to Rainbow Mennonite.
Nor did the church know that it would become the caretaker of the oldest mechanical-action pipe organ in the Kansas City area.
“New is not necessarily better,” Kaufman said. “There’s always wonderful new stuff, too. But all the great organ music spans the centuries, so it certainly makes sense to go with something that’s got a long track record.”
Finding a 19th-century organ, let alone one built by a manufacturer with an unsurpassed reputation, isn’t easy. It’s even more difficult to find one unaltered and in good condition.
You would be hard-pressed to find one in the area. Michael Quimby, tonal director and president of Quimby Pipe Organs Inc. in Warrensburg, Mo., said no mechanical-action pipe organs were installed in Kansas City before 1870. Today, many, if not all, of those instruments are gone.
The Hook at Rainbow Mennonite never fell prey to the electric-action organ movement of the early 20th century. It stood, largely unchanged, in the sanctuary of Troy’s Woodside Presbyterian Church for more than 130 years.
Quimby, who contracted with Rainbow Mennonite to oversee the restoration, marveled at the organ’s preservation. “It needed a lot of work, but it hadn’t been abused, vandalized or damaged by careless maintenance,” he said. “In fact, it was the finest preserved instrument of that period I’d ever seen.”
That sound might have stayed at Woodside Presbyterian had its congregation not aged and dwindled. By 2003, the church closed. Its building was turned over to the Albany Presbytery, and the Hook was placed on the Web site of Organ Clearing House, a nonprofit organization that finds new homes for used organs.
That’s where Kaufman — who holds a doctorate of musical arts in organ performance — first encountered the instrument. Her search had begun several years earlier, after Rainbow Mennonite realized that a proposed renovation would require removing its existing organ. The church eventually concluded that a used organ would complement its decision to stay in Kansas City, Kan., rather than build a new church elsewhere.
Getting the organ to Kansas City, Kan., would prove difficult.
When the Woodside Presbyterian congregation disbanded and the presbytery tried to put the building on the market, it discovered a deed restriction that said the church building must revert to the builder’s heirs if it was no longer used as a church. The heirs argued that the organ was part of the building and belonged to them.
As the presbytery fought the lawsuit, Kaufman raised money. A member of the congregation put up the $40,000 asking price, plus money for a move. Fundraisers helped pay for a prospective restoration. In all, she secured $120,000.
Those preparations paid off. On a Monday in July 2005, Kaufman learned that a judge had ruled for the presbytery. By Sunday, she was in Troy with a team of three volunteers and three organ builders from the Organ Clearing House.
Five days later — after painstakingly disassembling and packing thousands of organ parts, after fending off an heir who tried to lock them out of the church, after watching about a dozen historic preservationists protest the sale outside the church — Kaufman and her workers loaded 40 cases of organ parts on a semitrailer bound for Kansas City, Kan.
Their work, however, had just begun. Every part of the organ had to be examined, cleaned and, if necessary, repaired or replaced.
Quimby brought in Richard Hamar, a 19th-century pipe organ expert from Connecticut, to help oversee the restoration. Dozens of volunteers pitched in, saving the church thousands of dollars by washing parts, refurbishing the wood and reassembling the organ.
During the restoration, workers replaced two octaves of keys. They meticulously re-created two draw knob covers, complete with new calligraphy to match the other covers. And they installed new trackers — long, wooden pieces inside the organ that allow for a mechanical connection between the player and that noble sound. No electric impulse governs that action.
The organ’s only electric component is a blower, which long ago replaced the hand-pumped bellows that generated a steady flow of air for the instrument in the 19th century.
Otherwise, the Hook appears and functions much as it did when built. Its 876 pipes, 27 pedal keys and 20-foot tall American chestnut and oak case remain the same.
Even the three tiny ink drawings on three pipes that Kaufman found inside the organ — a cat, a woman with a parasol and a Stars-and-Stripes shield with “1869” written next to it — have weathered the last 140 years.
Those drawings came from the hand of Steven P. Kinsley, the Hook’s 19th-century pipe voicer. They are part of the instrument’s charm, more evidence of its tie to an era when striking the key of an organ set in motion a series of actions that ended with the sound of a church coming to life.
To inaugurate that sound before the Rainbow Mennonite congregation, Kaufman turned to the church’s children. The first person to turn on the blower during a church service was a 2 1/2-year-old boy. An 8-year-old girl had the honor of striking the first key.
“So often the organ is seen as this remnant from past worship styles,” Kaufman said. “But we wanted it known that it’s vital and current for the worship that we do.”