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First Unitarian Church in Baltimore marks a musical anniversary

The First Unitarian Church in Baltimore celebrates the 125th birthday of their newly-restored Niemann organ. (Kenneth K. Lam, Baltimore Sun video)

Jim Houston’s sneakered feet tapped to keep time Sunday as he played the organ. It was the “Song for St. Cecilia’s Day,” John Dryden’s 17th century ode to the transcendent power of music.

Going from a regular organ to a Niemann pipe organ, says Houston, organist and music director at the First Unitarian Church of Baltimore, is like the difference between driving a Volkswagen bug and being chauffeured in a Rolls Royce.

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On Sunday, both the organ and the music director marked a milestone: Houston celebrated 50 years with the church on Charles Street in Downtown Baltimore, and the church’s organ, recently restored, turned 125.

The church celebrated the anniversary with an organ concert with performances by four local organists as well as Houston, that included pieces from the 1600s to present day.

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Emmanuel Episcopal Church, “the church with the open doors” at Main Street and Broadway in Bel Air, is preparing to celebrate it’s 150th anniversary with events scheduled in February and March.

In the audience Sunday was David Storey, who owns the Hampden shop in which the organ was repaired. After months of labor restoring the “guts” of the organ, he was excited to finally hear the fruits of his work.

It wasn’t a glamorous process. “125 years of dirt accumulates in the organ, and we’re rolling around in it as we’re taking it apart,” he said.

It was a rare treat to hear the instrument in action.

“Baltimore is blessed to have so many 19th century organs, although many of them aren’t used,” he said.

The upgrades cost around $200,000, said Sally Wall, who chairs the church’s music committee and helped raise the funds to pay for the work. She’s had a turn at playing the organ while Houston is on his summer breaks.

“Playing it is a religious experience,” Wall said. “Particularly when no one is there. It’s just you and the sound. It takes you somewhere else.”

The organ recalls a day when “Baltimore was really an epicenter of organ building,” said historian Catherine Evans.

Built by Baltimore organ maker Henry Niemann, who learned his craft in France, it’s one of just a few left in the city. Another at Old Otterbein United Methodist Church was restored in the 1990s. In 2011, a Niemann organ was demolished during construction at St. Stanislaus Church in Fells Point.

“It was very depressing,” said Houston, 69. He tried to help salvage what was left.

The one at First Unitarian is the largest. Michael Britt, who was performing, called it “one of the best representations of 19th century organ building in the world.”

Installed in 1893, the organ was a gift from Enoch Pratt on the church’s 75th anniversary. Tiffany windows were added, and a vault-shaped ceiling was installed to cover the dome, which Evans said had made for terrible acoustics.

“They always say the room is half the organ,” said Houston. Even a great instrument, he says, will sound poorly if thick carpeting deadens the sound, for example. The floors at First Unitarian are bare.

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Houston, who graduated from the neighboring Peabody Institute, began working at the church when he was 19.

“I tried to leave a few times,” he said, half-joking. But he stayed for the organ.

“He couldn’t leave,” teased Wall. “We would have kidnapped him.”

The organ was deteriorating even when Houston began working at the church, he says. He laughs about a time when he realized that one of the parts of the organ stopped working through a minister’s sermon — he had to run to repair it with Scotch tape.

The minister, seeing him run out, kept on talking to allow him time to make the fix.

“It’s like an old car,” said Houston. “You do the same thing.”

And now, after the repairs?

“It’s like being in a restored Rolls Royce,” he said.

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