Saugatuck Church’s Pipe Organ: Not A Pipe Dream

The Thanksgiving week fire of 2011 devastated Saugatuck Congregational Church.

But it did not destroy that venerable downtown institution.

View looking into choir room

The aftermath of the November 20, 2011 Saugatuck Congregational Church fire. This is the view looking into the choir room.

Congregants, clergy and friends helped the church rebuild. Three years later, services were once again held in the historic building.

Yet the restoration was not complete.

Lost in the blaze were the entire 100-year-old music library, 5 pianos, a harpsichord and the pipe organ.

Firefighters cut a hole in the roof above the pipe organ. The heat from the blaze metled some pipes, and burned others. Water and asbestos poured onto the organ.

Firefighters cut a hole in the roof above the pipe organ. The heat from the blaze metled some pipes, and burned others. Water and asbestos poured onto the organ.

Though there’s finally a new Steinway in the sanctuary — itself now an acoustic marvel — the pipe organ has not been replaced.

But just wait till you hear what’s in the works.

A parishioner came up with a very substantial matching grant. Fundraising is almost done.

Meanwhile, an organ committee spent 3 years talking with and listening to a number of companies. Last summer, they signed a contract with Klais Orgelbau. The German organ builder’s headquarters are in Bonn — just down the street from Beethoven’s home.

Philipp Klais is a 4th generation organ builder. He’s worked around the world — including, a few years ago, at First Church Congregational in Fairfield

While there, he’d have dinner in Westport. Whenever he passed Saugatuck Congregational, he admired its beauty. It was, he thought, the quintessential American church.

Saugatuck Congregational Church, in all its splendor.

Saugatuck Congregational Church, in all its splendor.

When Dr. Heather Hamilton — Saugatuck’s director of music — called Klais, he could hardly believe the connection.

He flew to Connecticut. Standing by the burned-out church in a snowstorm, he told Hamilton and committee member John Walsh he’d be honored to help.

“He was like a kid in a candy store,” Hamilton recalls. “He said he wanted to make the organ an educational tool for the community.”

Saugatuck’s new organ chamber will include plexiglass. Music lovers — including students — will be able to see all the levers and bellows as they work. The organ utilizes age-old technology, but it will be the first time Klais has ever built one this way.

Pipe organs are complex instruments.

Pipe organs are complex instruments.

“An instrument of this kind sitting in the middle of Westport will be incredible,” Hamilton says.

She emphasizes that although the 2-manual, 26-rank pipe organ will be housed in Saugatuck Church, it really belongs to the entire town. Unitarian Church minister of music Ed Thompson is nearly as excited as Hamilton.

So is Mark Mathias. The Saugatuck Church member is a founder of the Mini Maker Faire, and an advocate of all things both artsy and techy.

Of course, building a pipe organ like this takes time. It won’t be installed until 2019.

In 2011 the Saugatuck Congregational Church organ was covered with soot and water. But music still rested on its rack. (Saugatuck Church fire photos by Heather Hamilton)

In 2011 the Saugatuck Congregational Church organ was covered with soot and water. But music still rested on its rack. (Saugatuck Church fire photos by Heather Hamilton)

Plus, the organ coffers are about $100,000 short. That’s not stopping Klais — he’s a true believer — but it’s why the Saugatuck Church is sponsoring a few fundraising concerts.

The next one is this Sunday (October 16, 3 p.m., with Carol Goodman; $25 suggested donation). On Friday, November 18, it’s “Music From Manhattan.”

Saugatuck Congregational Church has a rich history. It’s seen a lot in its 186 years, in its current location and the earlier one, just across the Post Road.

But its new pipe organ will be a story for the ages.

12 responses to “Saugatuck Church’s Pipe Organ: Not A Pipe Dream

  1. Linda Whitney

    Dear Mr. Woog,
    I am a new subscriber of 2 weeks.
    I had to write because I am amazed at the prolific outpouring of stories by you about every facet of the Westport Community.
    I must confess that I only actually lived in Westport from 1960 to ’63 when I graduated from Staples.
    I Must also confess that coming from a rural school as part of a “normal” middle class family, my opinion of the Staples and Westport Culture was kind of like the fat housewife. It was the Madmen Era and $ was the most blatant banner hung for all to admire.
    I knew even then the artistry- the creativity that was the true core of Westport but it was pretty well buried for me by things like Madison. avenue and the Famous Artists School- which seemed to start as a helper then degrade into a money maker then it even that. I do t really know any facts about that. It just looked like it from the outside.
    I have spent time in Westport since and have gotten to know specific people, many of whiom are WONDERFUL, caring individuals and Community treasures. But others follow the old party line still. I guess that is the true definition of community. Lots of different people trying to build. A life at least In Proximity to other people.
    So, very long story short, your stories are introducing me to the full picture of the Westport Community past and present. I thank you for that. For years I have. Even schizophrenik about my feelings about Westport. You are giving me some much. Redefining bAlance. You are showing me that the fewWONDERFUL PEOPLE that I know are actually Backed up by MANY WONDERFUL PEOPLE of all ages and all commitments.
    PLEASE carry on!!

    PS Please research the area in terms of indigenous peoples and their use of the land. Westport has always struck me as being built on some pretty powerful point on the earth. It would be interesting to see if it has that kind of. History.
    Thank you for your work.

    • Thanks, Linda! What a great comment. I am glad you found “06880,” and honored to be able to do what I do.

      This blog really is “where Westport meets the world.” You’ll be amazed at how many former — some of them VERY former — Westporters still feel connected to this place.

      We all have different experiences and memories here. I hope you’ll share yours from time to time, along with so many other Westporters — past, present and maybe even future!

  2. I echo the former Linda’s comments. I look forward to reading your latest story re Westport every morning and can’t wait to see what else you have discovered. I have learned so much even though I have been here many many years and I do love history. Many thanks!

  3. Mary (Cookman) Schmerker Staples 1958

    This entry brought tears, smiles and so many memories.

    Personal history. I was baptized at Saugatuck Congregational Church when it was across the Post Road

    My Grandmother, Ella Otis was the organist for years. I believe that the Mr. Ohanian followed her as choir director. Of course most of us remember him for his work with Staples and the Staples choirs.

    I attended church, Sunday School, youth groups and was married at the new location in 1966.

    I knew about the tragic fire and efforts to rebuild.

    But here is some additional information about the organ damaged in the fire.

    First, I am unable to give the exact dates and which newspapers reported what I am about to share. I have the original clippings but the sources were not always saved.

    I have a letter dated August 22, 1960, on Saugatuck Congregational Stationary and signed by the Rev. Gibson Daniels. It acknowledges the death of Mrs. Roman Henry Heyn.

    I also have a an article from The Bridgeport Telegram dated Wednesday, August 24, 1960 announcing the memorial services for Mrs. Heyn to be held at Saugatuck Congregational Church.

    So, what does that have to do with the organ. The above was cited to give an approximate date for the following newspaper articles.

    “Pipe Organ Memorial is Gift to Church”
    “The Rev. Gibson I. Daniels, pastor of the Saugatuck Congregational Church, has announced the gift by Mrs. Roman Henry Heyn, of Owenoke Park to the church of a pipe organ in memory of her mother, Julia Jessup Hotchkiss.”

    “Announcement was made also of the creation of a permanent trust fund, the major portion of which is the gift of Gresham Bradley in memory of his wife, Nettie Hale Bradley and his sister, E. Louise Bradley, the income from which is to maintain the pipe organ.”

    “The Rev. Mr. Daniels said that Julia Jessup Hotchkiss was the daughter of Charles Jessup, of Bridgewater, a cousin of Major Ebenezer Jessup, an original settler in Westport, and builder of the present Congregational parsonage.”

    Westport’s history is unscored with the generosity of so many who gave of their time, talent and wealth to build a community. Mrs. Heyn, The Bradley family, the Bedford family, the Staples family, Ruth Steinkraus and so many other.

    Personally, I think we all need to look back and remember and then look inward and ask, what can I do?

    • Mary, that is astonishing — and very interesting sleuthing. It fits right in with the recent post about Owenoke, which also elicited comments about Ms. Heyn: https://06880danwoog.com/2016/09/19/owenoke-beauty-bites-the-dust/

      Thanks for sharing this, and tying together so many rich strands of Westport’s history.

    • Buell Neidlinger informs me that Phyllis Ohanian — John’s wife — was the Saugatuck Church organist after Ella Otis. John Ohanian played the violin, and also directed the Staples High School music program.

      • Mary (Cookman) Schmerker Staples 1958

        I was fairly certain that Mrs. Ohanian was the organist after my grandmother but since I did not have it in writing I hesitated to say so. While Mr. Ohanian is most remembered for Staples and the music program there, If my memory serves me correctly he also taught music at Bedford Elementary in the early years. I do remember music at Bedford Elementary. I played the violin, miserably, and thankfully for everyone with ears, gave it up after Elementary school. I am sure that I remember an orchestra, of sorts, that played for the graduation ceremony from Elementary school. Westport’s history is so rich. So many people dedicated their time and talents to the town. It is incredible to think about the music that was taught and encouraged even at the elementary level. No wonder so many of us still feel a connection to the town, its people, history and schools even when we have been transplanted to “foreign soils”! Well, perhaps Texas only feels foreign!

        • Mr. Ohanian taught music in all the elementary schools, Bedford Junior High, and Staples. a different school each morning, afternoons
          at Staples… Saugatuck Congregational choir director in addition to all that,
          Thursday evening rehearsal and Sunday morning service. Busy guy !

  4. Do you have any old photos of the building being moved across the Post Road (1950-1?)

    Doug Fenton

  5. Heather Hamilton

    I am so excited to read the history of the pipe organ at Saugatuck Church. So many wonderful souls who gave to the Westport Community. I will be sure to mention them at our service on October 30th at 10AM where we remember the souls for All Saints Day. It is very exciting to be a part of this new chapter and we at SCC will do our best to make the pipe organ a part of the community, to be shared and cherished. Thank you! Heather Hamilton, Director of Music, Saugatuck Church