A pipe organ does not have to be a grand concert instrument to hold a place of significance, especially in regard to local history. This holds true for the three manual Hinners pipe organ at St. John’s Lutheran Church in Pekin, which was recently rebuilt and restored by John-Paul Buzard Pipe Organ Builders of Champaign, Illinois. Although Pekin was home to the Hinners Pipe Organ Company and the location of several of their organs, the pipe organ at St. John’s is said to be the only working Hinners left in the city.
In 1927, the congregation of St. John’s Lutheran dedicated not only their current church building, but also the three manual Hinners pipe organ that still resides there and is used today. Although the Hinners company had hand-crafted many different organs throughout the U.S. and also overseas, building a pipe organ for St. John’s was seen as a special project and opportunity. Not only was the Hinners factory only blocks from the church, but records indicate that several Hinners employees were members of the congregation. While not a particularly large organ, it functioned well for congregational use and the members of St. John’s were quite pleased with it. Others also found it to be a fine and well-built instrument, including Edward Rechlin, an “eminent concert organist” and Bach interpreter, who wrote a brief letter to Hinners giving high compliments of the instrument after giving two recitals at St. John’s. Regardless of how this organ is perceived today, it was seen as a fine instrument of good quality for the time and the circumstances.
However, the general wear on the instrument in the following decades and certain decisions left the organ in need of extensive repairs and restoration. It appears that the only time the organ has been re-built was in the 1960s, and it was during this time that the original console was discarded and additional couplers and a “floating” Positiv division were added. Unfortunately, the added stops from the Positiv division were out of place with the organ’s original tonality, and it was discovered that the additional stops and couplers overtaxed the organ’s current wind system. The negative effects of these changes, in addition to a large number of “inconsistent” or “dead” notes on various stops and major air leaks in the wind system, furthered the need for thorough work on the organ. Occasional mechanical problems with the stop controls in the console, and possibly within the organ chambers as well, also caused some unwanted surprises while practicing and during services.
Fortunately the need for extensive work on the organ was already under discussion, so starting this major project was mainly a matter of planning and financial decisions. I was asked to gather some information about a few organ builders that could provide an organ evaluation and potentially complete the project along with continuing to maintain the instrument. Based on this information and their own findings, the church trustees contacted three organ building companies and had evaluations of the organ completed in late 2013 and into 2014. In spring of 2014 the church trustees decided to present the evaluation and proposal from Buzard to the congregation. By late June a contract with Buzard was finalized with plans for work to begin in August.
A team from Buzard spent the entire first full week of August removing, packing, and taking all the components of the organ (except the organ blower) back to Champaign where most of the work would be completed. Along with the general task of rebuilding the organ, a 1929 Hinners console acquired by Buzard was renovated for use at St. John’s. In addition, the pipe organ was restored to its original specifications, removing the additional stops and couplers that were added in the 1960s. During this time the church trustees had some necessary electrical work related to the organ completed within the church and also cleaned, repainted, and installed proper lighting inside the organ chambers. Re-installation, voicing and tuning of the organ began in mid-November and was completed just in time for Christmas, although one feature of the instrument–a “harp”–was still being rebuilt and would not be reinstalled until later.
The organ was first used for services again on Christmas Eve, with specific mention made in regard to its rededication during services the following Sunday. A special Epiphany service held at St. John’s on January 11th also provided the opportunity for others from the community and surrounding areas to come and hear the organ as well as sing several Epiphany hymns together. The congregation also received a little surprise on Easter Sunday: the harp, which was finally reinstalled in late February, received its “debut” during the prelude that morning.
Response regarding this extensive project is both positive and enthusiastic. Parishioners at St. John’s had many questions to ask, interest in each step of this process, anticipation in finally having the organ back again, and great satisfaction (and some surprise) in the final result. Having an organ restored is a major project, but the result makes the expense worthwhile and helps to ensure the instrument’s further use and the ability for its musical sounds to be enjoyed by many for years to come.