Oldest American church organ ready for encore

Raymond Brunner stands beside the restored 1770 Tannenberg organ. Image courtesy of R.J. Brunner & Co.

Raymond Brunner stands beside the restored 1770 Tannenberg organ. Image courtesy of R.J. Brunner & Co.

SILVER SPRING, Pa. (AP) – For Raymond Brunner, restoring a 1770 Tannenberg organ is a “dream come true.”

It was love at first sight 30 years ago, when Brunner first laid eyes on the organ at Zion Moselem Lutheran Church in Berks County. But it was in “bad condition, and wasn’t the way it should be.”

“Now I’m finally getting the chance to make it right,” he said.

The organ is believed to be the oldest American-made organ in existence, Brunner said, one of the many “high quality” organs that Tannenberg built for 45 churches in his lifetime. Now, only nine remain across the country.

Brunner and his employees at R.J. Brunner Organs, an organ restoration business in Silver Spring, have been working on the masterpiece for about a year.

“It’s sort of a special opportunity to work on something this old,” he said.

The original organ case was solid black walnut, but after numerous paint jobs in both brown and white, the organ was stripped of its paint and restored to the original wood.

“Most organs of that period were painted white,” he said. “You don’t normally paint wood that’s that beautiful.”

The keyboard is ebony and ivory, where the colors are reversed—large ebony keys and small ivory keys—reflecting the style of Colonial times.

Last year, 200-year-old organ bellows, or wooden hand pumps, found their way to Brunner from a man in Schaefferstown. Brunner didn’t have any use for them—until now.

“The organs sound better when they’re hand-pumped,” Brunner said, “because the wind is smoother and gentler than with an electric blower.”

The Tannenberg will be able to be played either with bellows or an electric blower once it is back at Zion Moselem Lutheran Church, but its grand debut will include someone to work the bellows while Lititz Moravian Church organist Phillip Cooper plays.

The organ’s post-restoration debut concert will take place Oct. 2 at Zion Moselem Lutheran Church—after the organ is disassembled, transported, and put together again.

Members of the church stopped by Brunner’s shop recently to see the progress of the organ, which only needed a few more final touches, Brunner said.

“The church members that own it were really surprised and impressed,” he said. “They knew it would be a lot nicer than it was.”

In the organ restoration business for more than 30 years, Brunner has done work for churches and museums such as the Metropolitan Museum of Art in New York City and the Biltmore in North Carolina.

He became interested in restoration growing up watching his grandmother, who owned an antique store.

“She used to sell fine antiques and fine things,” he said. “She gave me a love of restoring things and preserving old things.”


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