125th Anniversary Booklet

Robert Rowland, Organ Builder

Craftsman at work: Robert Rowland, St. Johnsville native now residing in Ossining, carefully fits a frail metal pipe into the "air box" as he works on construction of a new pipe organ in Grace Congregational United Church of Christ, in St. Johnsville. The box lays across pews in the church. Organ builder will spend the next few months fabricating other parts of the instrument in his home shop, and then will return to complete installation. Photo by Weir.

Building His Last Pipe Organ? October 25, 1972 (by Ralph Weir, Evening Times)

Robert Rowland, Ossining, is building in St. Johnsville what he says may be the last pipe organ he will make. At 75, the St. Johnsville native already is retired, but once in a while comes out of retirement to engage again in what has been his life's work and which is truly a labor of love.

It was as a teenaged boy, more than 60 years ago, that he first became interested in pipe organs, the hard way. He pumped the bellows which provided the air for the organ in the St. Johnsville Methodist Church.

He was fascinated by organs and their great versatility, and chose the field of organ building as his occupation. Since then he has built "well over a hundred" organs. Rowland and his wife have resided in Ossining for many years.

When the Grace Congregational United Church of Christ, in this village, decided to get a new organ, or have the old one completely overhauled, Rowland was contacted, and agreed to accept the task. He has been working in the church for the past few weeks, and now has a considerable amount of work to do in his shop at home, after which he will return to St. Johnsville and complete the installation.

Traces Organ History

Speaking at a meeting of the church Men's Club, recently, Rowland traced the long history of organs, and informed the group that so-called electric organs are not really organs, since the dictionary definition of organ is a wind-powered instrument. Ancients, he said, cut reeds of different lengths and sizes, and from them, fashioned "mouth organs" which were the first real organs.

The old organ in Grace Church had 686 pipes, he said, the rebuilt one will have 714. The old one, with the console attached to the organ, was operated through linkage, which opened the valves to let air into the pipes as a key or keys were depressed.

More modern organs are operated with electrical solenoid controls, he pointed out, and the Grace Church organ here will be so constructed, he said.

Rowland pointed out that when there had to be direct mechanical linkage between the keys and the pipe valves, it was necessary to have the console attached to the instrument. With electrical controls, the console can be placed anywhere, and connected to the pipes and valves by wire. The new organ in the local church will have its console at one side of the auditorium, enabling the organist to face the choir and congregation.

When any key is depressed more than one pipe is activated, the builder explained. The "stops" on the instrument determine the various combinations of pipes to resemble particular musical instruments, he said.

Describes Pipes

Various sizes of pipes are constructed of various materials, he explained. The smallest pipes, about the size of a pencil, and others quite a lot larger are made of a special soft metal and must be handled carefully, he said. Some pipes are of wood. The largest pipes are of metal of a different composition than the small ones because of their considerable weight. They also have to be strapped in place at the top.

Each pipe, regardless of the size, has to be inserted into a precision drilled hole in a large wooden "air box". Rowland found that about 100 of the present pipes in Grace Church organ can be utilized in the new organ, while the rest will be new.

Making the pipes, like making the organ, is a task for skilled craftsmen. They cannot be produced in an "assembly line" operation, but must be created by hand. Rowland explained that the holes into which the pipes fit can be drilled by machine, but then must be trimmed by hand to extremely close tolerances.

Ideal temperature for tuning an organ is about 72 degrees, Rowland said, but then pointed out that churches frequently are chilly during the week, and are warmed for Sunday services. Such temperature changes alter the delicate pitch of the pipes, he said.

Difference in Organs

Church organs differ from theater organs, he said, because of the different types of compositions played on them. Theater organs have tones more adaptable to popular music, he explained, while those in churches are better suited to the music customarily played in churches.

Rowland's wife travels with him considerably when he goes into a community to construct an organ, and is his expert assistant, he says.

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