Detroit firm breathes new life into pipe organs
In this age of digital, portable instruments, pipe organs would seem to be obsolete. But Rick Helderop, who repairs and designs them for a living, says he’s as busy as ever.
Helderop, who owns Covenant Organs and has worked on the huge instruments for more than 30 years, recently restored, combined and installed two 1930s Kilgen pipe organs at St. Patrick Roman Catholic Church in White Lake and restored a 51-year-old organ at St. Regis Catholic Parish of Bloomfield Hills.
He’s also repairing a pipe organ for Wayne State University and rebuilding an organ for Blue Lake Fine Arts Camp in Muskegon County.
"I love the problem-solving," Helderop said. "Certain things went wrong on certain organs, so when someone calls with a problem, I usually know what I need to do to fix it.”
In one especially challenging instance, Helderop had to remove a pipe organ from Ford Auditorium before the former home of the Detroit Symphony Orchestra was demolished in 2011.
To do that, he first needed to lower the massive pipe organ 80 feet onto the theater's main stage. Helderop's solution? Hiring an elevator technician who created a pulley system to lower it.
All in all, the tedious process took 10 days, which included removing about 3,000 parts, including pipes.
"Rain got into the building and destroyed the inside of the organ, but we were able to rescue it and restore it," he said.
Helderop's company has a workshop in downtown Detroit where he and his employees do much of their repair, maintenance and restoration projects. The shop is home to the company's new CNC machine, which cuts wood and other materials to fashion custom parts and replacements.
For Wayne State, the company is cleaning the pipes for an organ, a process that involves washing with a chemical solution, rinsing and carefully drying the pipes.
For Blue Lake, Helderop and his team are refurbishing a 1967 Schlicker organ from Michigan State University, with a goal of having the refurbished instrument ready by October. Exposing young musicians to pipe organs is crucial to keeping the traditional church instruments from disappearing, he said.
"They want to get kids curious about the pipe organ," he said. "Kids will want to try organ out of sheer curiosity."
Fritz Stansell, Blue Lake's president and co-founder, said the camp embarked on the project to expand musical opportunities for its students and respond to the declining number of organists.
"It will be natural for a number of the piano students to be interested in the pipe organ," Stansell said. "The piano recital will be done in the same building as the pipe organ, so all of these kids will have exposure to the pipe organ."
Because of the unique nature of organ repair, Helderop says finding employees who understand the instrument is a challenge. He usually brings in high school and college students as temporary apprentices or summer workers, but that leads to a constant turnover.
Since Helderop is the only one at his workshop with an overall knowledge of the mechanics, he teaches his young workers a few of the smaller repair processes so they can take those problem-solving techniques into future careers.
"Someone who's pretty smart and learns fast, they tend to go on to other areas," he said. "It’s hard to keep people. Unless they’re really committed, unless they love working with it, this is kind of a stepping stone."
Helderop admits he has wondered if the industry is "going by way of the horse and buggy."
"Churches will close their organ because they don’t have anyone to play it." he said. "If we had more good players, we would have a lot more organs being played. We have to promote this; otherwise, it's going to die."
Helderop says churches often have to consider funding. A brand new pipe organ costs about $1 million, he says, but restoring an existing organ or building one from existing parts typically costs a half to a third of the price of a new one.
Helderop's work ranges from the traditional to the modern.
Among the recent projects, the organ he restored for St. Regis features a blend of old and new. The hybrid organ has a mix of actual pipes and recordings of organs called "digital voices."
Signals are sent through wires to tell the instrument to blow wind through the pipes of whatever keys are being played. The signals also tell speakers which digital sounds to play and when.
In August, Helderop will add antennas to make the instrument completely wireless.
At St. Patrick's, Helderop worked with the church to obtain, restore and combine the two Kilgen pipe organs last year. The combined instrument, which has 2,300 pipes, was dedicated at the church with a concert in November.
"We married those two instruments together," said the Rev. Thomas Meagher, pastor of St. Patrick's. "It's enhanced our worship considerably."
Aaron Kaleniecki, the organist at St. Patrick's, says the church's original 1968 Casavant organ needed some repairs to the mechanics and interior leather, as well as new casework on the outside.
But restoring it was going to cost as much as replacing it, if not more.
He had worked with Helderop on projects in the past, so Meagher and he decided Covenant Organs was the best choice for the job.
"It was a dream to do a major organ project," Kaleniecki said. "When the project was done, it had to look like it wasn’t an afterthought. We accomplished that."
A major obstacle for churches is getting the instrument into or out of the building.
"The biggest challenge is stairs. Many of these organs are two or three floors above the main floor," Helderop said. "The trick is getting them down, pipe by pipe, and getting the consoles down. Sometimes we have to go over the balcony, and then we have to deal with scaffolding."
Lance Luce, a concert organist and consultant for Detroit's Evola Music, says the lengthy process of installing an organ doesn't end once the instrument is in place. After that, you have to adjust the instrument's volume and tones to fit its performance space.
"Each sanctuary has different acoustics," Luce said. "If there's a pipe organ, you want it to be loud enough to encourage the congregation to sing, but people also don’t like it too loud.”
Covenant Organs, like so many other small businesses, struggled to make it during Detroit's economic decline. But in the midst of the city's comeback, Helderop says he's getting more requests for organ repairs, which he believes is due to people contributing more money to churches. Helderop has continued to work in Detroit, through good and bad, because he believes it's a great place to work.
"I plan to retire from here," he said. "We want to be part of the community. There's so much about Detroit that's fascinating. Incredible things are happening here."