Lansing Native Hits National Niche Market With Pipe Organ Preservation


Beyond the small world of church organ committees, few people are aware of the cottage industry of pipe organ repair and restoration. And fewer still are aware of the range of places outside churches where pipe organs are still in active use.

But visitors to Scott Smith’s pipe organ workshop in north Lansing encounter a glimpse of that world. It starts in a small room crammed with overstuffed furniture, a lovingly restored oak table he rescued from his grandmother’s garage, and his collection of antique table fans.

“We’re kind of addicted to moving air around here,” Smith deadpans.

And a few steps through a door in the back, the building opens into an open workshop filled with a jumble of pipes, various Rube Goldberg-esque organ components and the “screwseum,” Smith’s collection of screws and fasteners of every description. The tools are turn of the century. (You pick your century).

“Most of my colleagues deal solely with church instruments,” says Smith. But there are lots of non-church insturments—organs he says are built entirely differently from church organs—in active use.

Their homes include surviving theatre organs, a large residential organ at Meadowbrook Hall in Rochester, Michigan, and one at the Mole Hole, a local shop in nearby Marshall, Michigan, where he plays for customers at Christmas every year.

“We are among about a half-dozen organ firms in the country that maintain and restore theatre and residence organs professionally,” says Smith.

A Piece of History

Beginning as a teenager, Smith performed regularly on the Barton organ at the old Michigan Theatre in Lansing, and was the theatre’s last house organist from 1972 to 1980. He credits this organ as being his first “teacher” of organ repair.

The downtown Lansing theatre organ was in bad shape and, as a 17-year-old volunteer, he was left to figure out how to repair it. When the Michigan Theatre was slated for demolition in 1980, Smith first fought to preserve the theatre, and then the organ.

“The organ isn’t the biggest thing in a theatre,” he concedes, “but it makes the biggest noise.”

He couldn’t save the theatre, but he was able to move the organ to storage and embarked on a decade-long quest to find it a home.

The odyssey included several near-catastrophes, including two close-call storage fires. Eventually, they secured a new home at the restored .

“During the first fire I thought about the five years we had already spent looking at every possible building where we could put it, and I confess I thought, ‘Maybe my troubles are over. If this organ burns up, maybe I can move on.’”

Smith was responsible for the organ's redesign and installation in the restored Opera House. He is a founder of the nonprofit Lansing Theatre Organ, Inc., which owns the organ and sponsors an annual pops concert series. He became the house organist there beginning in 1995, and still plays it for concerts and other special events.

“As it turns out, that organ has been good to me over the years,” Smith recalls. “It’s sort of an anchor for me, and that’s why I try to be good to it.”

Finding a passion

Smith discovered his gift for organ repair thanks to a “musical aptitude test” that the Lansing School District used to give all students in the 4th grade—a mandatory singing audition that was traumatizing for him at the time.

“To me, I sounded like a strangled toad. But as it turned out, I could always seem to hear tones and intervals. It never occurred to me that everyone else couldn’t.”

His father was a saloon signer, “a ‘whiskey tenor’ whose performance improved as the evening wore on.”

His mother was a pianist. During his childhood, she lost the strength to play the piano throughout an extended recovery from a serious illness, “so the piano left the house and in came an organ.”

After the school aptitude test, “my dad said, ‘we already have an organ,’ and the best pop organ teacher in town lived a couple of blocks away.” The lessons took, and his passion was born.

Smith went on to study both theatre and classical organ. Later, he studied jazz theory and advanced harmony with the late Father Jim Miller.

In adulthood, Smith’s career bounced between organs and the printing business until about fifteen years ago. Besides the Michigan Theatre, he says, “I’ve worked bars, lounges, and more Junior Miss pageants than you could imagine, and even played a few concerts.”

Making a business

He entered full-time organ repair and restoration 15 years ago, opening his own business in Lansing in 2000.

Today his clients stretch from Chicago to Cleveland to Alpena and beyond.

About half of his business today is churches, and the other half is “everything else.”
“There’s never been a day that I have mistrusted my judgment about doing this full-time,” he says. “My only regret is that I didn’t do it earlier.”

Smith’s business volume enables him to employ two assistants: Joe Granger, a student at Central Michigan University, and Ed Corey, an EDS retiree.

But Smith clearly regards both of them more as colleagues than as apprentices. Unlike his organs, he says, “we’re interchangeable parts.”

Granger grew up in the Plymouth Congregational Church and took his first organ lessons on its magnificent Casavant organ. He has studied at Interlochen Center for the Arts, and was introduced to Smith by Plymouth Church organist, Steve Ball. Ball is the house organist for the Michigan Theatre in Ann Arbor, itself saved from the wrecking ball in part by its landmark organ. 

“Every aspect of a pipe organ is hand-made, and keeping it alive is my dedication,” says Granger. His respect for Smith is obvious, and it is returned by his boss.

Granger’s mention of the Casavant organ at Plymouth Church sets their eyes sparkling conspiratorially.

“We often have discussions about what we would do if we had a chance at it,” Smith muses. “Because it’s the biggest instrument in town, immediately you want to change something. But no one has ever done anything. It’s almost like there’s this glow around it; you have to respect the instrument for what it is.”

On his workshop wall, Smith has tacked a quote from the humanitarian Albert Schweitzer, also a part-time organ restorer. The last phrase is often quoted: “. . . for the struggle for the good organ to me is part of the struggle for truth.”

But tellingly, Smith’s version of Schweitzer’s quote also includes its first half, much less well-known: “The work and worry that fills my lot through the practical interest I took in organ building made me wish I had never troubled myself about it—but I did not give it up. . . ”.


Rick Ballard, a free-lance writer from East Lansing, took six years of piano lessons in childhood, alas, to no avail. 

Dave Trumpie is the managing photographer for Capital Gains. He is a freelance photographer and owner of Trumpie Photography.



Photos:

Scott Smith plays an organ in his workshop

Joe Granger

Scott Smith

Tuning an organ pipe

Joe Granger works on tuning pipes

Stacks of organ pipes in the shop

All Photographs © Dave Trumpie

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