Johns Creek church rebuilds pipe organ damaged by 9/11 attacks

Nathan Frank isn’t one to get overly sentimental.

It’s true he was excited while checking progress this summer on the pipe organ being rebuilt for his church. But, as a representative of Johns Creek United Methodist, he was there in an official capacity: to ensure all was going smoothly.

The instrument hadn’t been played for a while. In fact, the organ — formerly belonging to Trinity Wall Street of Manhattan — was dismantled and stored away just days after the World Trade Center collapsed and a large amount of detrimental dust settled on its melodic pipes.

Still, knowing all this, Frank tried his best to listen with an objective ear as an organist sat down to test the Aeolian-Skinner.

And, the tears came.

“I’m not an emotional person,” said Frank, director of worship and music at the church, “but … I got a little weepy and teary-eyed, because this instrument hasn’t spoken in 15 years, and it was overwhelming.”

After years of planning, Johns Creek United Methodist is nearing completion of its restoration and reconfiguration of the vintage organ, which originally was housed just three blocks from ground zero in New York City.

Employees of the company commissioned to restore the organ have been working at the metro Atlanta church fine-tuning the pipes, and soon the congregation and community will get to hear the antique, reconstructed organ’s re-emergence.

“Like so many precious voices, this amazing instrument was silenced — presumably forever — in the aftermath of the tragic events of Sept. 11, 2001,” said the Rev. Sondra R. Jones, senior pastor of Johns Creek United Methodist Church. “The last time it was played, it accompanied the singing of hymns by those who found shelter at Trinity on that dark day.”

Christened “the Sound of Freedom,” the organ came to Johns Creek in pieces over several weeks. It took three 53-foot tractor-trailers to transport all the pipes and other parts.

Tuning also has been quite the ordeal.

“To put it in perspective, a piano has 88 keys, with 260-some-odd strings, and a piano tuner tunes that,” Frank said. “This organ has 5,000 pipes, and they have to be individually tuned to each other.”

Made of wood and metal, the pipes range in size from the length of a school bus to that of a thimble. While some parts of the organ date to 1923, the instrument (first built in 1846 and renovated several times in the years since) also includes state-of-the-art electronics installed by Casavant Frères of Saint-Hyacinthe, Quebec, which is one of the world’s biggest pipe organ builders.

The Canadian company oversaw full restoration of the Aeolian-Skinner and custom-fit it to the Johns Creek Church.

“Trinity Wall Street sits 400 or 500 people,” Frank said. “We sit 1,700, so we knew some modifications would need to be done.”

Simon Couture, vice president of sales with Casavant Frères, said modifying, repairing and restoring the organ was not an undertaking the company took lightly.

“We really wanted to respect the legacy and the history of this instrument,” Couture said. “Knowing this (organ) helped generations of worshippers at Trinity is very meaningful, and when you add to that the tragic events of 2001, this instrument has a unique history like no other pipe organ.”

While Trinity donated the organ to Johns Creek United Methodist, it still cost the local church $1.1 million to get it restored by Casavant Frères, whereas buying a new one would have cost somewhere closer to several million dollars, Frank said.

The $1.1 million was well spent, said Cindy Curtin, a longtime member of the congregation.

“It’s been a lot of fun watching this happen. I remember hearing about the possibility that we might get the organ … and, when we finally did, it was incredible. It has great historical significance, and it gives us a chance to use it as an instrument of outreach,” Curtin said. “It’s very exciting. I can’t wait to hear it.”

Church leaders plan to hold several concerts for the congregation as well as the public.

“We’re thrilled to have this unique and wonderful instrument of peace to reach beyond our local congregation with the sound of freedom,” Jones said. “We look forward to hosting numerous opportunities at Johns Creek United Methodist Church for the community to see and hear the 9/11 organ through weekly worship, concerts and other special programs.”

Specifically, on Dec. 4, the church plans a dedication ceremony, and, on Jan. 29, the congregation will invite the whole community to hear the organ.

Frank said the Jan. 29 concert will be a chance to “show off what the organ can do.”

Judging from what he’s heard over the past several months, throughout the repair and tuning processes, it’s going to be memorable.

Try as he might to keep it cool, Frank still gets emotional thinking about the history of the Aeolian-Skinner, which now sits front and center in his church’s sanctuary — silver facade pipes rising to the ceiling.

“There’s a feeling of pride, of being awe-inspired, when I walk into our sanctuary and see it,” Frank said. “It’s an instrument of healing and peace, and I am so excited that we get to share this with the world.”