News | 12 March 2024
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Restoring Wellington’s vital organ

The year was 1906. The most intricate technologies of the time were pipe organs, steam engines, and clocks. Yet, 15 years before we had radio in New Zealand, Wellington had music from the Town Hall organ.

Man leaning over the top of an organ in a yellow high vis top.
Moritz with the main coupler unit of the organ. This is the heaviest part of the instrument!

Before being disassembled to allow for the Town Hall redevelopment project in 2013, the Town Hall organ was a longstanding jewel of Wellington’s cultural landscape. Intricately crafted to have the power of a full symphony orchestra and located in a world-class auditorium with exceptional acoustics, the organ served as the cornerstone of countless concerts, recitals, and community events.    

Currently, the organ’s many parts are in the capable hands of the South Island Organ Company (SIOC), the team tasked with disassembling, repairing, restoring, and cleaning the century-old instrument. Some members of the team have been working on the organ ever since it’s disassembly. However, as you could imagine, cleaning a 118-year-old instrument with four thousand parts is no light work.  

“What I like about working with organs is the variety of materials,” says SIOC team member Katja Schneider. “There are woods, metals, leathers, glues- elements that all present their own challenges."  Each section of the organ requires precision, patience, and a deep understanding of the instrument's intricate mechanics.  

The main parts of the organ were shipped to the SIOC’s workshop in Timaru after the organ was dismantled in 2013. Those parts have all been restored, cleaned, had their polish refreshed with shellac, and had most of the leather parts replaced. This part of the works was completed in 2016. 

A man and a woman standing over zinc trunks of an organ.
Moritz and Katja talking about the organ amongst refurbished zinc trunks. The zinc trunks supply various parts of the organ with wind.

“Currently, we’re focusing on the parts that didn’t come to Timaru that have been kept safe at the old Capital E building,” explains organ builder Moritz Fassbender. Parts of the organ were stored in this location due to it being an appropriate size, as well as humidity and temperature controlled. Although the old Capital E building is an ideal storage facility for the organ, there has been some minor storage damage over time. 

“Some of these pipes are close to 900kg and are made of soft alloy of lead and tin,” explains Moritz. “We store them upright when we can because otherwise, they begin to crush themselves with their own weight.” The pipes that are too tall to stand upright are 12-metres long and are frequently turned to keep their shape.  

“So far, we’ve straightened and repaired all the lead pneumatic tubes as well as cleaned them by wiping with a damp rag and removing any old glue with Desolvit.”  

Woman in a high vis tshirt examining one of the 16’ reed resonators from the Town Hall organ.
Katja examining one of the 16’ reed resonators. These resonators have a knuckle near the bottom to prevent dirt falling onto the reed tongue. The reed tongue sits below the resonator and is the part of the reed pipe that creates the sound.

“The organ’s zinc wind-trunks have been repaired and repainted, and the joints resoldered and strapped with leather to prevent any air leakage. All the old leather bedding gaskets have been replaced. The building frame parts have been repaired and painted. We are now working on the Swell and Choir Expression box parts, as well as repairing some other parts that suffered from storage damage," says Moritz.

The Town Hall organ is one of the few remaining Edwardian era concert pipe-organs still in its original state, with some parts of the organ being attended to for the very first time since they were installed. Although the team have been hard at work restoring the organ, none of the organ’s core mechanisms have been altered, meaning that it will sound, look and work the same as it did in 1906. 

“This organ is like the whole Town Hall project in a way – it has many elements so it’s requiring a lot of work to restore, but at its heart it will be the same when we are done.”