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How Dr. Sellwood's pipe organ got transplanted to Astoria



by: EILEEN G. FITZSIMONS - Dr. John Sellwood's 1916 residential pipe organ, put into a new console in 1938, remains the heart of this historic instrument, now in Astoria's Performing Arts Center.In the last issue of THE BEE, I outlined the life of Dr. John J. Sellwood, and his medical career – particularly his years in the community, 1897-1938. The doctor specialized in maternity cases and surgery, and the trust that he earned then has extended well beyond his lifetime (he died almost 70 years ago, in 1944).

Last year I was conversing with a 90-year-old gentleman, recovering from an illness in a Portland hospital. He stated that he’d been born in Sellwood in 1923. His father had seen a flier in a logging camp in southwest Washington State, and when his birth was approaching, his mother insisted on traveling to the Sellwood Hospital, where he was delivered by the doctor – a testament to his reputation and skill, as well as to the effectiveness of his advertising.

The doctor was also a talented musician who sang and played the organ at the St. Johns Memorial Episcopal Church, on Harney Street across from Sellwood School. In 1907, after sixteen years of marriage, he and his wife built a new home on the corner of Southeast 13th and Harney Streets, which is still standing and today is used for medical offices.

According to the online history of the Estey Organ Company of Vermont (1846-1951), the company designed, fabricated, and shipped many pipe organs to Oregon after 1901. Most of them were destined for commercial and institutional use – in movie theaters, churches, and at least one funeral parlor (Wilhelms, then on S.E. Milwaukie Avenue).

But the company also made two residential pipe organs for Oregonians, both of which were sent and installed in 1916. One remains in its original home in the Irvington neighborhood; the second went into Dr. Sellwood’s modest home. The instrument may have provided respite from the demands of the doctor’s medical practice, and his memories of operating a field hospital on the battlefields of France during WWI.

He enjoyed giving concerts, both of sacred and classical music, on the organ in his Episcopal Church. However, when the structure was demolished in the early 1920’s, he continued to perform informally, on his home pipe organ – by opening the double French doors onto Harney Street.

On April 7, 1938, THE BEE reported the death of Mrs. Sellwood, the former May H. Heitman, at the age of 71. An “invalid for years…she died at Portland General Hospital [the new name of Sellwood Hospital], where she had been a patient for a considerable length of time.” The home that May and John had built and occupied for 35 years must have then seemed a forlorn place, for within the month John sold it to Dr. Donald Nickelsen, who already owned the hospital.

“Dr. Sellwood now occupies apartments near his office, in the Bank of Sellwood building,” according to THE BEE. The fate of his pipe organ, still in the house, was not mentioned, but it is evident that one of these two doctors sold it to the Guenther Organ Company, located at southeast 26th and Holgate Streets.

The Guenther brothers, Roman and Alex, were as capable in their business as Dr. Sellwood was in his. For more than 50 years they assembled, repaired, and tuned pipe organs throughout the Pacific Northwest. Since they were so close to the community of Sellwood, it is likely that they serviced the doctor’s organ, possibly assembling it in his house when the components arrived in 1916. At the time the house was sold, the Guenthers knew that Trinity Lutheran Church in Astoria was looking for a pipe organ. They disassembled the instrument, transported it down the river, and installed it in the newly finished building. According to a history of the church, the organ was first played on Christmas morning of 1938.

A pipe organ is a hand-crafted work of art, with its own distinct characteristics. Unlike a piano, which creates its sounds with felted hammers striking wires, a pipe organ is a wind instrument, similar to the human voice – with air rising through metal pipes of varying length and diameter to produce music. A pipe organ is a contradiction, releasing notes of sometimes thunderous power, through pipes that are fragile enough to be bent and crushed by the human hand.

Each Estey organ was numbered; Dr. Sellwood’s was Opus #1430 (the Irvington instrument is #1429). His organ retains its registration number; and, like others on the company’s online list, its whereabouts are recorded, like a painting when it is sold to a new owner. Similar to original art, an organ appreciates in value.

Estimated at $40,000 in 1939, Dr. Sellwood’s pipe organ would be a challenge to replace today for $250,000. Because the organ was originally designed for a relatively modest home, it required enlargement when it was reassembled in the Lutheran church.

A pipe organ is classified by the number of keyboards and ranks (clusters of pipes). Each row of keys has five octaves, with 61 notes. The Estey #1430 was a 3 manual, 23 rank. According to organ technician Jason Neumann-Gable, who is currently involved in the repair of this particular organ, the ranks (pipes) would have been adjusted for its original confined space.

In the soaring interior spaces of the Astoria church’s sanctuary, the Guenthers adjusted the ranks to create a more robust sound. When they completed their work, in late 1938, the doctor’s original three keyboards were in a larger console, and may have gained redesigned stops – which are knobs arranged on wooden panels on either side of the keyboard. They usually control one rank of pipes. It also has a pedal board – a keyboard played with the feet. A pipe organist does not simply play the instrument, but develops a physical relationship with it that demands mental focus and the precise coordination of flying hands and feet.

Estey Opus #1430 was originally placed in the front part of the Astoria church, or its chancel, near its 1,298 pipes. When the chancel became a raised performance stage, the organ was moved onto the floor of the church, but its pipes remain in two tall purpose-built cabinets, on either side of the stage. On February 15, 1939, the organ was dedicated by the church in a public concert. The evening’s featured guest organist was Professor Thomas S. Roberts, a blind musician from Salem, Oregon. At the conclusion of the evening, he stated that “such a fine organ cannot be truly shown off in one concert because of the innumerable combinations of tone and color effects that are possible.” The church hosted 200 people beyond its seating capacity of 515. Attendees demanded and were treated to four ovations, which must have pleased the Guenther brothers, who attended the concert with their wives.

The organ was used in the church’s services and concerts until 1974. According to one long-time church member, there were several other Lutheran churches in Astoria, segregated by language – but attendance was dropping. Although the parishioners were resistant, a regional bishop “urged” the merger of the Trinity Lutheran (Swedish) and Zion Lutheran (Finnish) churches in 1974.

Appropriately, the new institution was called Peace Lutheran Church, and the members moved into a different building, leaving their pipe organ behind. Prior to the move, the Trinity church members overhauled the building, including a final service call and “voicing” of their pipe organ by the Guenthers.

In 1974 the church building, including its organ and stained glass windows, was purchased by Clatsop Community College, which offered a wide range of classes in the performing arts – including music, dance and drama. Basement classrooms were remodeled into soundproof practice rooms, and the sanctuary was converted into a 250-seat theater.

Sadly, the organ was seldom played by professionals during the ensuing 35 years. Some of the pipes were damaged, and dirt and dust collected in the organ and its pipes. Over time, the college began to drop its performing arts classes, but they did maintain the building, which was in continuous use by a wide variety of groups, for lectures, musical, and dramatic events and art exhibits.

The college still owns the structure; but in 2012, a new nonprofit organization was established: Parters for the PAC (Performing Arts Center). It a coalition of many local arts organizations, who want to insure that the center remains accessible and affordable for a wide range of community users. They are launching a series of fundraising efforts to upgrade and maintain the building and equipment, and to repair the Estey #1430 pipe organ and a Baldwin D2 grand piano.

Last November, numerous Astoria-area musicians donated their talents in a 24-hour marathon performance, “Bach ’n Rock”. $13,000 was raised, and a portion of the funds are now being used to begin the repairs to the organ. It must first be cleaned and repaired, and then it can be tuned and “voiced”.

Professor of music and experienced organist Dr. Denise Reed, and other volunteers, have spent many hours in the chilly sanctuary, cleaning and helping to repair organ under the direction of Jason Neumann-Gable of Southwest Portland. His passion for pipe organs has translated into below-scale charges for his work, which is taking longer than anticipated, since collateral damage has been discovered as he has delved into the complex instrument.

It is anticipated that at least two of the manuals of the organ, and hopefully its third, will be restored in time for its first use in a concert since 1974. Next month, on the evening of Friday, March 22, the combined choirs of the North Coast Chorale (Astoria) and the Columbia Chorale (St. Helens) will join their 70 voices to perform Morten Lauridsen’s “Lux Aeterna.” They will be accompanied by the Estey Opus #1430, which at its core remains Dr. John Sellwood’s pipe organ.

The concert is free, but donations at the performance will be accepted, or may be mailed to the PAC Fund, c/o Clatsop Community College Foundation, 1651 Lexington Avenue, Astoria, OR 97103.

In the meantime, benefit performances by the Brownsmead Flats, of a musical – “Hitchin’”, about hitchhiking in the 1960s – will be presented on the first two weekends in February at the PAC. Check the college website for dates and times if you’re interested in attending.

There are many reasons to visit the North Oregon coast and the vibrant city of Astoria, now 200 years old. But hearing the notes of Dr. Sellwood’s beloved pipe organ is certainly an added incentive to those who live where it came from, in Southeast Portland.