- The Washington Times - Tuesday, January 9, 2001

WILLIAMSBURG Like a grand visitor from the past, the Wren Chapel organ stands stiffly in the center of John Watson's laboratory in Colonial Williamsburg's conservation building.

Its wooden case shimmers from a fresh cleaning and polishing. Its ranks, or sets, of metal and wooden pipes stand ready to trumpet the golden, fluty sound characteristic of these 18th-century English instruments.

Since September of last year, when they removed it from the chapel's rear loft, Mr. Watson and associate conservator David Blanchfield have been meticulously refurbishing this musical treasure. The organ is due to be reinstalled in the chapel in mid-February and will be a jewel of the recently renovated Wren Building on the College of William and Mary campus.

Organs get retooled and retuned by organ builders and technicians all the time. But something remarkable is happening with this project.

Mr. Watson believes this may be the first time that instrument conservators have moved an entire organ into a laboratory to tackle the job. The process, making the organ playable while preserving its historical significance, signals a new direction in the methods used to restore organs and other musical instruments.

"Organs are like history books," says Mr. Watson, who is writing a book on the subject to be finished in late 2001. "When you take them apart, they have a lot to tell us about the past."

A thesis of Mr. Watson's forthcoming book is what he calls the "paradox of restoration" when working with an old instrument.

"The only way to make it look new again is to scrape away all of the old," he says, "So we work to get the best musical result without causing the loss of any historical evidence.

"We've done this with an awareness and a sensitivity."

It means achieving the same result through different methods. Mr. Watson points to a small metal pipe inside the chamber that had to be lengthened in order to improve its sound. An organ technician would have soldered an extra piece of pipe on the top. Mr. Watson chose to glue a sleeve onto the pipe that produces the same sound without permanently altering the original instrument.

The conservators also rebuilt the hand pump that originally powered the organ but kept the electric motor that pushes the air through the pipes in modern times. And the organ was retuned to an 18th-century temperament rather than a modern one.

Built around 1760, the organ came out of a grand English manor house named Kimberley Hall. Colonial Williamsburg purchased it in 1950, and after an ill-fitted installation in the Williamsburg Lodge, it was moved to the Wren Chapel in 1970.

Mr. Watson and Mr. Blanchfield examined the handwriting on the pipes and discovered the organ had been relatively unaltered over the years. While the name of the craftsman who built the organ remains a mystery, he may have been one of the many German immigrants who came to England to work.

With Colonial Williamsburg involved, the organ restoration got the royal treatment. Goetze & Gwynn, an English organ-building firm, served as consultant on the project. Nicholas Waanders, a renowned European organ conservator, helped Mr. Watson document the information that came to light when the organ was dismantled.

Mr. Watson says his ideas go against traditional methods and probably won't be well received by the organ-building community, which has been repairing organs for centuries without the interference of conservationists.

Harpsichords and other small keyboard instruments find their way into museums where they are scrutinized by conservationists. But church organs generally are in use most of the time.

"It doesn't have the luxury of retirement," Mr. Watson says. "It has to work for a living."


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