- Associated Press - Monday, January 16, 2017

DETROIT (AP) - Rick Helderop has spent almost 30 years bringing old sounds to new places.

The Detroit-based organ builder has removed more than 50 vintage pipe organs from shuttered churches, rehabbed them and installed them in newer churches where they can be heard by a new generation of worshippers, the Detroit Free Press (http://on.freep.com/2jj1J5E ) reported. Through the process, he has become an organ transplant specialist.

“Just the whole world of organ building from design, to fabrication to installation and the final voicing, absolutely blows my mind,” said Helderop, 55, of Bloomfield Hills.

Helderop’s company, Covenant Organs, operates from a workshop in the Russell Industrial Center in Detroit that is bursting with pipes and keyboards and wooden parts of organs that most listeners never see.

The shop includes a paint booth, a leather cutting station, and an area for carpentry complete with a computer-controlled cutting machine that can cut wood to designs measured in the thousandths of an inch. He reads over blueprints on a table beside 100-year-old windows while I-75 traffic is visible in the distance.

Helderop said Detroit is home to dozens of great pipe organs. The Fox Theatre and the Jefferson Avenue Presbyterian Church are two of his favorites. Meadowbrook Hall, the mansion built by automotive heir Matilda Dodge Wilson that is now part of Oakland University, also has an impressive organ, Helderop said.

“Detroit has some incredible gems, and with Detroit coming back, these gems are going to be woken up,” he said.

One such gem is a massive 1929 Casavant Freres organ that was rescued from Orchestra Hall. It’s covered in dust, but Helderop hopes someone will appreciate its history and craftsmanship and pay to have it restored.

Most of the instruments Helderop works on are older than him.

One current restoration project involves the 1929 Kilgen pipe organ from St. Benedict Catholic Church in Highland Park. After the church closed, the Archdiocese of Detroit sold the building, but agreed to make the organ available to other Catholic churches that might want it.

The Rev. Thomas Meagher of St. Patrick in White Lake Township jumped at the chance. His church was built in 1966, and its organ was due for a major overhaul because of its age. The organ was undersized when it was installed and placed in a corner by the choir where its sound is muted.

“It was never put in the right place,” Meagher said.

He considered having it moved to the center of the church behind the altar, but it never worked out.

“Then we got the opportunity to rescue this instrument from St. Benedict,” Meagher said. “It’s wonderful to reclaim this beautiful instrument.”

Helderop removed the organ from St. Benedict’s, moved it to his shop and began cleaning more than 80 years of dust off it. The organist at St. Patrick, Aaron Kaleniecki, later found a smaller 1935 Kilgen organ, available from a church in Cambridge, Massachusetts.

He and Helderop rescued that organ as well and the two instruments will be combined in a 2,500 pipe organ at St. Patrick sometime next summer. Meagher is anxious for his congregation to hear it.

“I think it’s going to be something people have never heard before,” he said.

Helderop said technology has improved organ consoles and the electric fans that push air through the pipes, but the older instruments have unique advantages that can’t be replicated today.

“They had access to old-growth forests, which give you much more stable wood,” Helderop said.

Pipe organs push air into wooden chambers known as chests. Pipes sit on top of the chests and leather valves hold the air inside. When the organist presses a key, the leather valve opens, allowing air to flow up the pipe and make the sound. When the organist releases the key, a spring pushes the valve closed.

The chests are typically made of poplar, but not all poplar is created equal. Low-quality wood will degrade over time, and the air can leak out through the grain, damaging the sound.

“That’s why the old-growth wood is better,” Helderop said. “The grain is much tighter.”

Christian Van De Wiele, 31, works for Helderop. He said the work can grow tedious because each piece of the organ has to be worked on by hand. When these instruments were built originally, labor was much cheaper and organ companies had far more workers to complete the jobs. Now, there are just a handful of people working on them.

“When I have to cut out leather pouches, I have to do them one at a time, and I do like 300,” he said. “There’s not really an education system for it. It’s a lost art.”

Years ago, organ-building firms employed hundreds of people. But today, it’s a much smaller-scale industry, said Rick Parsons, a fourth-generation organ builder in Canandaigua, New York, who serves as president of the Associated Pipe Organ Builders of America, an industry trade group.

“Somebody with 20 employees, in our industry, would be considered at least medium-sized, if not large,” he said. “It used to be an appliance that every church had. It was like getting a roof.”

Helderop is a Grand Rapids native who earned a bachelor’s degree in music education from Grand Valley State University in 1984 and a master’s degree in organ performance from the University of Michigan in 1987.

He does maintenance and repair work on about 150 pipe organs across Michigan and has done work in neighboring states as well. A few years back, he was asked to look at the pipe organ at Detroit’s Cass Community United Methodist Church, which had sounded off-key for years.

“The blower was miswired, and it was blowing backward,” Helderop said. “Apparently, it had been that way for 30 or 40 years.”

Helderop rewired the organ and improved the sound immediately.

In January, he leaves for Bryansk, Russia, a city of about 400,000 people about 200 miles southwest of Moscow. He’s going to install a restored organ that came from a Grand Rapids church. The 2,500 or so pieces of it have already been shipped, and he will travel there to put it together.

It’s the second time he has worked in Russia. Helderop speaks Russian, though he admits he’s a bit rusty. He first visited there in 1992 on a church mission trip. When people there learned what he did for a living, they asked him to help them get an organ for their church.

He found one in the First Reformed Church in Holland, Michigan. The building had been sold to the Salvation Army, which had no use for the instrument, so Helderop arranged to remove it, restore it and transport it to Russia.

“Most of the churches there are Russian Orthodox, which don’t have any instrumentation,” he said. “It’s all chant.”

The organ made the church unique, and pictures of it were later featured on a Russian stamp.

“My biggest joy is to sit in a dedication concert and watch people’s faces as the organ is being used,” he said. “I just like to wonder what they are thinking and how they are being inspired and knowing that I was a part of that.”

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Information from: Detroit Free Press, http://www.freep.com

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