A church closes, but where does its pipe organ go?

West Nashville United Methodist Church is being developed into an event space, and that means its 1905 Kilgen and Son pipe organ needs a new home. Dan Cook, left, owner of the building, is willing to donate it, but moving it comes with what likely would be a $15,000 or more price tag. Photo courtesy of The Tennessean/Larry McCormack

NASHVILLE, Tenn. (USA Today) A 112-year-old pipe organ in the sanctuary of a now-closed church needs a new home.

The $500,000 instrument is in good condition and free — if you can pay $10,000 to $30,000 to remove it from the old West Nashville United Methodist Church and reassemble it.

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But the trouble is that the 1905 George Kilgen & Son pipe organ isn’t alone in needing to be relocated. About 450 other organs are available across the USA, and demand is slight, said Executive Director John Bishop of the Boston-based Organ Clearing House, which helps save high-quality pipe organs from abandonment or destruction.

“If I have 450 organs listed and I can place 20 a year, I’m doing very well,” Bishop said.

The now-shuttered West Nashville United Methodist Church in Nashville is being converted into an event venue and the building’s new owner doesn’t have plans to keep its 1905 Kilgen and Son pipe organ. The organ is free to anyone who can remove and reassemble it. Photo courtesy of The Tennessean/Larry McCormack

The glut of organs up for grabs is in part a consequence of declining church membership across denominations, he said. Fewer people in the pews can lead to low bank balances and church closures.

Whenever a church closes, staff determine what items in the church may be able to fill a need elsewhere, said Amy Hurd, spokeswoman for the Tennessee Conference of the United Methodist Church.

“We have re-purposed a lot of things,” Hurd said. “Organs are problematic because most of our churches already have an organ and they’re difficult to move.”

The mechanical organ at West Nashville Methodist was shipped by rail from St. Louis and installed in the church in 1906, said Dan Cook, who earlier this year bought the church that closed last year. He is converting the building into an event venue, and the organ isn’t in the plans.

Dan Cook crawls out from behind the inner workings of a 1905 George Kilgen and Son pipe organ that’s at the now-closed West Nashville United Methodist Church in Nashville. He wants to get rid of the organ but not send it to a landfill. Photo courtesy of The Tennessean/Larry McCormack

“I don’t want to be the guy that sends it to the landfill,” Cook said.

The organ has been maintained exceptionally well through the years. Milnar Organ Co. in Nashville, restored it in 1969 after it had been burned in a fire, founder Dennis Milnar said.

In the decades that followed, Milnar’s company and Fine Tuning of Nashville maintained it, Milnar said.

“It’s a shame to see something like a pipe organ, especially a good one in good condition, go without a use,” Bishop said. “But unless there’s somewhere active to put it and real interest in funding it, organs like that very, very frequently wind up in dumpsters.”

More than dwindling membership in traditional churches is to blame.

The lack of demand is also a result of a rise in a more contemporary worship style that uses guitars and drum sets instead of organs, Bishop said. And less expensive electric organs have supplanted small and mid-sized pipe organs in small traditional churches.

“It’s a lovely instrument. The woodworking is just fine. Everything works like a charm,” Milnar said. “The organ has no real problems at all.”

(Holly Meyer writes for the The Tennessean)

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  • An odd but perfectly logical development. While church membership may be declining now, it may make a resurgence depending on other cultural factors, but I think changes in worship style, and technological advances in musical instrumentation are greater influences on this trend.

  • I suspect this is more due to the rise of Contemporary Worship. Younger Americans in particular have embraced modern music styles and instruments in church. This is a result of the baton being passed to a generation that knows what it considers powerful and moving music for worship. And it doesn’t come from an old pipe organ.

  • Lots of these members leaving denominational churches are now attending small, non-denominational churches with a band instead of an organ and piano.

  • Contemporary christian music is bubble gum for the soul. And the fact that evangelical churches are flocking to it doesn’t prove it’s right – it just proves most evangelical christians don’t sing their theology anymore. All it takes for the great hymns of the faith to be forgotten is for one generation of christians to stop singing them. This has happened to the churches – tragic loss.

  • In one generation or less, a pipe organ, no matter how “wonderful” it was will be no longer a consideration for anything but a historical museum. Along with the horse carriage, the steam engine tractor, antique furniture, and beanie babies, very few people wants or needs them anymore.

  • Well, the church was able to worship for about 1,000 years before the organ made its way from carnivals into worship services. If someone is dependent on a specific instrument to be able to worship, they might just be worshiping the wrong thing.

  • Of course organs aren’t necessary for worshiping the Lord nor any other instrument. But compare the “worship music” of today with that of the past 2000 years. By and large today’s music is theologically anemic at best. I call it 7-11 music: 7 words sung 11 times. And I would say those who insist having that kind of music in church might just be worshiping the wrong person.

  • I don’t know if they are worshipping the wrong Person, I don’t think we should be culturally bound by the form of our worship, but I agree that a scripturally/theologically based Hymn probably has more power and allows for more reflection than the 7-11 style to which you referred. Such choruses tend to allow my mind to wander, and they are not among my preferred choices for worship. But then I have always struggled with the “worship” portion of a church service even though it is a primary element. I’ve always been more hungry for the “meat” of the Word in the sermon.

  • I’ve always loved the great hymns of the faith and find ccm to not only be a distraction but offensive. Sorry, don’t mean to offend any of the brethren, but ever since I heard Hale and Wilder sing ccm has been off my radar as acceptable. And I refuse to attend any church that uses amps, bongo drums, electric guitars etc. or canned music. And unfortunately, there is a dearth of sermons that contain the “meat” of the word. I do like Alistar Begg, however.

    Enjoy this:

  • I’ve attended regularly some five or six churches over the course of 40 years as an adult Christian, and I never attended one where I wasn’t well fed on the Word; believe me, If I hadn’t been I wouldn’t have stayed long. Though I readily agree there are many churches today where you really don’t get the Word at all. Among my favorite hymns are: Amazing Grace, How Firm a Foundation, and It is Well with My Soul.

  • I will check out the link you posted. God’s blessings right back at you.

  • So, you’re suggesting it’s a fair comparison to cherry pick the best music of the past 2,000 years and put it up against all of the music written in the last 50 years or so? May I suggest, the “old hymns” are by their very nature already vetted and so the vast majority of those are solid great songs, because all the “junk” didn’t make it through. There are great modern songs like “In Christ Alone” “Grace So Glorious” “Reign In Us” “10,000 Reasons” “Our Great God” “Christ Has Risen” “Behold The Lamb” “The Glory of The Cross” “”Humble” “”This I Believe” and on and on. Also, most of the songs we hear today on “Christian radio” (do people still listen to the radio?) are not intended to be sung in worship, but sometimes churches do that. It’s not fair to count those. How many “good songs” do we have from 1,000 years ago? Not many. We have more “good songs” from the last 50 years than those from 1,050 years ago. It’s not (or shouldn’t be) old songs verses new songs, it should just be good songs, done well. IMHO.

  • Actually, the largest increase is at existing (so called) “mega-churches” with 2,000+ in average attendance. But you are correct, the majority of these do not utilize the organ. Nor to the majority of church plants, which are almost exclusively modern in their worship approach.

  • Also, I would add, in the last 10-15 years, the way music is produced and distributed has changed more than in the previous 10,000 years. Music is changing, not just church music.

  • Well, I agree it should be good songs done well. But I’ve heard very few contemporary songs done well. There are some but even they don’t rise to the level of the average hymn. My opinion of course. And sure there were some really bad hymns from yesteryears that we don’t even have in our hymn books today.
    But the problem is this: a lot of churches don’t even include the hymns in their services or if they do it’s only a token hymn.

  • Yes. Absolutely! People now carry all of their music everywhere they go. They can listen to their favorite music anytime and anywhere. And they do. Music has really been democratized in that way. The culture surrounding it has shifted in a massive way.

    And this influence has had an enormous impact on music in the church.

    As far as pipe organs go, it’s a dwindling number of people fighting to save a sound that’s irrelevant in modern music and now almost dead to the culture. In this way it’s like many now dead instruments. How many people listen to the lyre? Or the sackbut? The culture has moved on.