Review of March 2019 Organ Crawl Five Henry Niemann Organs in Baltimore
Contributed by James Houston
On a beautiful spring day around thirty members of the Baltimore Chapter of the AGO and the Hilbus Chapter of the OHS (and friends) met at Ss Phillip and James Roman Catholic Church parking lot on Charles Street in Baltimore to carpool for the day’s Crawl to four different locations in the city. The first stop was St. Thomas RC Church in the Woodberry section of the city. It houses an 1880’s, 2/17 Niemann in the beautifully redecorated sanctuary. This organ has a full rich sound including a Tierce Mixture which adds considerable color and brightness to the ensemble. The case and stenciling were a little more elaborate than some of his cases - the keydesk having carved jambs.
The second organ was at the Old Otterbein UM Church - built 1785 - this is the oldest continuously used church building in Baltimore. It was here that the Evangelicals, United Brethren, and Methodists merged to form one denomination. This 1897, 2/15 organ has to be heard to be believed. It is certainly the most bold sounding Niemann in existence - the walls of the church are solid brick and plaster-sound moves here. The organ was totally restored - including the original hand pump feeders by David Storey.
The group then moved on to Baltimore’s famous Little Italy to relax, enjoy conversation and have a wonderful lunch at the La Tavola Restaurant. From there we walked to St. Leo’s RC Church (the childhood church of Nancy D’Alessandro Pelosi) to hear their restored 1881, 2/19 organ (by David Storey - it was electrified long ago - that was retained). This organ is a slightly unusual specification for a Niemann - no Mixture for its size - three manual reeds and 8’ Open in the pedal (creates some independence without the height). A full and rich sound.
The final stop was my church, First Unitarian, where there are two Organs - the Parish Hall - an 1880, 1/6, and the
Sanctuary, an 1893, 2/24 (now 27) - Niemann’s largest surviving instrument. The Parish Hall organ is in its third location 1. St. Mary’s Industrial School, Catonsville-1880-1911 (replaced by an Estey), 2. Mt. Zion AME, Annapolis, 1911?-1985, and The Enoch Pratt Parish Hall, 1985. This was sort of a rescue-the church was remodeling/rebuilding and didn’t want the organ - I purchased it and moved it to the Hall. The reservoir was releathered and the blower placed in a box by David Storey last year. It, unfortunately, had (at Mt. Zion) its feeders and second rise removed. This organ had to fill a large chapel at the Industrial School-it has as octave coupler to boost the sound. (Sorry we had a slightly annoying mysterious ‘sound’ coming from the reservoir - weather related?)
The Church organ, I think (because I have played it for 50-some years - and it is actually why I have remained here so long) is exceedingly grand in the room - especially since the rotten 1955 carpet was removed about 5 years ago (for ‘health’ reasons) and the presence of a 16 double open on the great and a swell mixture. (An Aside) With the carpet gone it was almost unbelievable how different the organ sounded. It rolled out from the balcony sounding brighter and much more present in the space. The room was never ‘dead’ but now has a reverberation that is clean and clear - and it has improved congregational singing 100 percent. They can now hear each other and are not afraid to sing out. The choir can hear their sound move into the space. The room is finally really “alive” in the best sense of the word (end of aside). This organ has a Barker Lever to the Great and its couplers which includes Swell-Great 8 and 4. Also, the Great foundations are very reminiscent of Cavaille-Coll who Niemann worked with for five years (1862-67). The three additions have in no way affected the original organ-they are played electrically-pedal 16 Trombone (old Hall & Labagh), great 8 Harmonic Flute and 8 Trumpet (Niemann pipes from the 14 Holy Martyrs RC Church - a 2/14 big sounding organ-dispersed).
Having immersed myself in Niemann organs for a long time - and having played the existing ones - some now only remembered - I realize that Henry Niemann always fit his organs to the room (and Denomination?) no two of them are the same. Yet, they all have the same character - full diapasons, lovely flutes, especially his Harmonic Flutes, ethereal celestes, Violin Diapasons - somewhat quiet - but rich, quiet but pervading Dulcianas, and his Mixtures. The surviving ones are all similar, usually III ranks: CC-17.19.22; C- 15.17.19; c1-12.15.17; g#-2 8.12.15. The III-IV at First UU and at St. Peter’s RC (in storage) CC-15-17-19; C-12.15.17; c1-188.8.131.52; g#2- 184.108.40.206. First UU has the sw-gt 8 and 4 couplers which create quite a shimmer.
This was a wonderful Crawl - thanks to all who arranged it. The AGO and OHS should continue to partner in future events.