After 15 Years Of Silence, New York City's Trinity Church Organ Returns

Dec 5, 2016
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ARI SHAPIRO, HOST:

A pipe organ thought to have been ruined in the September 11 terrorist attacks is now making music again. The organ was in Trinity Church, just a few blocks from Ground Zero in New York. When the towers fell, the organ was covered by dust and debris. After years in storage it has been restored. And it has a new home, a church outside Atlanta. Bradley George of Georgia Public Broadcasting reports.

BRADLEY GEORGE, BYLINE: Yesterday was the second Sunday of Advent, and a grand occasion in the life of Johns Creek United Methodist Church.

(SOUNDBITE OF ORGAN)

GEORGE: A packed house came to the dedication service for the church's new organ.

(SOUNDBITE OF ORGAN)

UNIDENTIFIED CHOIR: (Singing) Gloria.

GEORGE: Ken Axelson, Johns Creek's organist, has been waiting for this moment for a long time.

KEN AXELSON: I first sat down to play it in the factory when it wasn't completely ready. And at that point the organ was in two different rooms. And the console was in one room and most of the pipes were in another room, and even that was very exciting.

GEORGE: Altogether, it looks beautiful. The steel pipes soar above the sanctuary, a large cross suspended in front of them.

(SOUNDBITE OF ORGAN)

GEORGE: The organ fits this church like a glove. It had been at Trinity in Lower Manhattan for almost 80 years. Then came September 11, 2001.

OWEN BURDICK: The first thing I wanted to do was to get back in the building because I'd left the instrument on.

GEORGE: Owen Burdick was Trinity's music director at the time. When he was finally able to get back into the church, he was stunned.

BURDICK: The dust was so pervasive throughout the instrument, so pervasive throughout the building, I mean, my office, everything. Everything was covered - everything.

GEORGE: Burdick says the dust was thick and oily. It seeped into every inch of the 5,000-pipe organ. And it wasn't in perfect condition before the attacks.

BURDICK: And so the organ was taken out and cared for. And the thought was it would be restored at a future time.

GEORGE: But Trinity Church moved on and installed a digital organ in 2003. A decade later, Johns Creek United Methodist Church opened a new sanctuary. Nathan Frank is Johns Creek's current music director. He says the recession meant church officials couldn't afford to buy a new organ.

NATHAN FRANK: And so they kind of had to backtrack and decide what would be best for the congregation as far as financially. And so they started doing some investigating.

GEORGE: They reached out to Massachusetts-based Organ Clearing House to see if there was a used instrument they could buy. That's when they found out about the Trinity organ. The New York church gave it to Johns Creek as a gift. The Georgia church came up with over a million dollars to have the Casvant organ company clean and restore it. That took a year, then another three months to install and tune it.

FRANK: So we'll see if we can get through here.

GEORGE: Frank leads the way into the inner workings of the organ. Those big beautiful pipes out front - they're mostly for show. This is where the music is made by pipes as big as a tree trunk and as small as your pinky. They're spotless, not one bit of their age or the damage from September 11 shows. Frank says he's glad his church finally has an organ, but he says the instrument's restoration sends a broader message.

FRANK: I think on the global level, this instrument is an image and it's a representation of the American spirit coming from the ashes, the beautiful display of what we can do coming out of a tragic event.

GEORGE: Music director Nathan Frank says his congregation calls the organ an instrument of peace. For NPR News, I'm Bradley George in Atlanta. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.