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Organ enthusiasts celebrate a decade at PLU

December 1, 2008

Organ enthusiasts celebrate a decade at PLU

Heading east of campus off 121st Street Southeast, one travels back in time in both feel and vocation. Ramblers from the 60s are replaced by farm houses from the turn of the century. The traffic hum falls away. Cows poke up their heads from rolling pastureland as a car drives by. One comes upon an elegant wood-crafted building that looks like it belongs on the Lord of the Rings set. The front door rises 20 feet and peaks out with a carved tree. It swings open without a sound. Once inside, the smell of freshly sanded pine and the notes of organ music wash over you.

Welcome to Paul Fritts & Company Organ Builders, the creators of the Gottfried and Mary Fuchs Organ that has resided for the last 10 years in the Mary Baker Russell Music Center. Fritts, who continued to build the company after he took it over from his father, said that his shop focuses generally on building the big organs for major colleges, institutions and churches.

These organs, which can take as long as two years to build, now cost millions. Fritts’ shop is only one of a handful in the U.S. which can handle these big projects. It soon becomes evident why the ceilings rise up to 30 feet and the door is so imposing. Organs are built by hand at the shop – from the keys, made of cow bone, to the intricate scroll work that adorns each piece. Each piece is assembled in the shop, to make sure it works, then taken apart and trucked to its new home.

A tall building or workshop is also needed to handle the pipes. There are almost 4,000 in Fuchs Organ alone, ranging from penny-whistle size, to 32-foot-long behemoths that tower over PLU’s concert hall.

Bringing the organ to PLU was the dream of former organist, David Dahl, who was told that while there was enough money to build the hall, there was no money to buy an organ. He would have to scrounge for that money on his own. Fortunately the fundraising caught the imagination of Jeffrey Smith, of Frugal Gourmet fame, who gave the large initial gift. The fundraising quickly topped the $600,000 mark. Mary Baker Russell gave a substantial gift and the final $300,000 was given by the Gottfried & Mary Fuchs Foundation of Tacoma.

The Fuchs organ, as well as Dahl and PLU organist Paul Tegels were recently mentioned in the current edition of “The American Organist.”

The organ – completed in 1998 – is what drew Tegels to campus. He was awed by the size and power of the instrument, which includes playing not one, but three keyboards.

“This was the main reason I applied for this position,” Tegels said, looking up at the organ after playing a set for visitors. “It’s not often you find an organ like this,” he said.