The Thanksgiving week fire of 2011 devastated Saugatuck Congregational Church.
But it did not destroy that venerable downtown institution.
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.
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.
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.
“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.
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.