Case Study: Building an award-winning organ case

We consider a job well done if on the last day, everyone shakes hands and says they look forward to working together again. That’s especially meaningful when you’ve just worked on a challenging project with a highly respected architect.

In this case, the project was constructing, carving, and installing a new organ case for the Beaux Arts-style Cathedral of Saint Paul in Minnesota. The architect was Duncan G. Stroik, a professor of architecture at the University of Notre Dame and a modern-day expert in the classical tradition.

Though we had worked with Stroik’s team on smaller projects, we were keen to show off our advanced construction and woodcarving skills as well as our ability to deliver and install a complex and high-profile project to the other side of the country—all within the budget and time frame.

The organ case of the 2,200-seat Roman Catholic cathedral needed a serious facelift. So, to commemorate the cathedral’s 2015 centennial, the congregation commissioned the new cabinetry seen here, which houses the recently refurbished 3,917-pipe Aeolian-Skinner organ.

Stroik designed casework to complement the cathedral’s modern French classicism. The walnut and gold-leaf casework included 40-foot-high cantilevered towers decorated with huge hand-carved corbels and swags and topped with bell-shaped domes. A pair of human-sized angels playing musical instruments flanked returns into massive stain-glass windows behind.

The entire structure was 60 feet wide and 20 feet deep, and stood on a platform some 30 feet off the ground. Obviously this project presented some challenges. This was an extremely heavy multi-piece walnut structure that needed to be installed in a restricted space without disrupting the cathedral’s everyday events.

We hired a cabinet shop run by Geoff Arko and Scott Richter in Richmond, California, with whom we have 20 years experience collaborating. We liaised with Quimby Pipe Organs, the organ building company, to iron out any construction, packing, shipping, and installation issues ahead of time.

When Arko delivered the blanks for the 6-foot swags that draped around the top of the towers, our first thoughts were, “Wow! We had better get to work.” Each swag was individually carved with no repetition in design. After all, the advantage of carving by hand is that you don’t have to repeat everything like a machine does. The real monsters were the 8-foot-wide brackets that visually supported the towers. The sheer size and weight meant they were extremely difficult to move around, let alone carve by hand.

Perhaps the most interesting part of the job was carving the two angels. We always work with sculptors who specialize in the human form to supply us with models, or maquettes, for us to copy. Stroik recommended Cody Swanson, an American sculptor living in Florence. He and Stroik created an appropriate design and then supplied us with half-sized plaster models.

After the carving and casework was complete, the gilder, Peter Werkhoven, and his staff covered the carved elements, including the giant corbels and swags, in pure gold leaf—again, no easy task considering the size of the parts.

All told, our team of woodworkers, woodcarvers, and gilders spent around 18,000 hours over the course of a year to complete the project.

We loaded the parts into a truck on a mild winter’s evening in Northern California and then drove them 2,000 miles to Saint Paul, the bitterly cold and snow-laden capital of Minnesota. It took us five days to install the casework, just in time for Quimby to bring in the pipes and all their magical musical workings.

A local scaffolding company helped us hoist the parts into place using cranes borrowed from a shipping yard on nearby Lake Superior. On the last night, I remember the feeling of relief as I listened to electric drills secure the casework into place while we trudged into the snow for a hot meal and a cold beer.

The organ case earned Stroik and his team numerous well-deserved national awards. More importantly for me, I got a handshake and a promise that we’d all work together again soon. And we did.

“The involvement of a true craftsman always makes the projects better. Ian Agrell and his staff took a classical design drawn in great detail and enriched it further. We were thrilled at the result!” — Duncan G. Stroik, Architect