Village Presbyterian installing ‘best’ pipe organ in the Midwest

The new organ will have 3,800 pipes when fully installed.
The new organ will have 3,800 pipes when fully installed.

Elisa Bickers, principal organist at Village Presbyterian Church, can’t wait to get her well-trained hands on the keyboard of her new organ and try out his 3,800 pipes.

That’s right, she knows its gender. You get a feel for those sort of things when you’ve played professionally all over the country.

“This new organ will be the best one in the Midwest,” Bickers said. “It’s been conceived of very thoughtfully and lovingly.”

Even before the first bellows blast air through those ranks of pipes, ranging from a 17-foot, 600-pound behemoth to pencil size, the new $2 million organ being installed at Village Presbyterian is a sight to behold.

It’s maker, Richards, Fowkes & Co. of Chatanooga, Tenn., has designed its cabinet to complement the stately Federal style of the church sanctuary, and provided custom touches to go along with its Kansas home. The keyboard is framed by gilded wheat stalks, sunflowers and cottonwood leaves.

Gilded sunflowers, cottonwood leaves and wheat stalks frame the keyboard in a nod to Kansas.
Gilded sunflowers, cottonwood leaves and wheat stalks frame the keyboard in a nod to Kansas.

“It’s the largest one we’ve made as a company,” said John Brown, the firm project and business manager. “Village Presbyterian is a unique site. Even though it’s a church and the organ is primarily there for that purpose, it’s also a very credible instrument for all styles of music.”

Bickers said the conversation already was underway at the church for a new organ when she arrived in 2009. While the existing organ wasn’t all that old, it was installed in 1982, it was failing and had mechanical problems.

“Rebuilding the organ could cost about as much as a new organ,” she said, “and it would have been a bandaid.”

So Village Presbyterian established a 12-person committee to visit organ makers around the country. The church wanted one built in the U.S. After making a request for proposals, two firms stood out, and the contract with Richards, Fowkes was signed on Dec. 26, 2012.

“It was the best Christmas ever,” Bickers said.

The sanctuary of the church has been remodeled to maximize the sound of the new organ.
The sanctuary of the church has been remodeled to maximize the sound of the new organ.

To achieve the best sound, the church also decided to remodel its sanctuary, a cost not included in the price of the organ. The organ maker began working in coordination with the architect, Mantel Teter of Kansas City, and acoustician, Dana Kirkegaard, to come up with the design.

The dozen workers in Chatanooga began building the organ in August 2013. The sanctuary renovation began after Easter services 2015 and was completed that December. Parts of the old organ were donated to other institutions, and 72 pipes are being repurposed for the new instrument.

The new organ began arriving at Village Presbyterian on Sept. 11. Every week, a large truck arrived with components, four loads in all. In the meantime, Bickers has made several trips to Tennessee to oversee work.

Elisa Bickers is associate director of music and principal organist at Village Presbyterian.
Elisa Bickers is associate director of music and principal organist at Village Presbyterian.

She is a native of Maryland, and has a bachelor’s in church music and master’s in organ performance from Texas Christian University. Bickers came to Village Presbyterian after earning her doctorate in musical arts from the University of Kansas.

While in Lawrence, she performed at First Methodist Church, which has the largest pipe organ in Kansas.

The new organ is not expected to be fully completed until late spring or summer 2017. Not that it will be silent during the interim. Bickers will be playing throughout the installation in what’s called the “voicing” process.

The grand debut will be Sept. 24, 2017, when Doug Cleveland, a virtuoso performer from Seattle, will perform a concert.

Bickers said the new pipe organ will reinforce Village Presbyterian’s reputation for being a cultural hub in the metropolitan area as well as a respected spiritual center.

“Our first priority is excellence in worship,” she said, “but we like being a performance venue for UMKC and other colleges. Groups far and wide love to perform in our space and now they’ll have this lovely instrument they’re welcome to use.”

The basement of the church is serving as a workshop for assembling the new organ.
The basement of the church is serving as a workshop for assembling the new organ.