He’s re-assembling a pipe organ at home
Outside of their day-to-day professions, many people pursue so-called passion projects. Some tinker with antique cars. Some build model planes or train sets. And some re-assemble pipe organs.
In his home on Ashmont Street, Michael Soucy is working with passion on his project: the restoration and re-assembly of a Wicks Opus 555 Orchestral Organ.
“In the pipe organ world there are multiple tiers of people,” Soucy explained. “There are the professional organists, or the professional organ builders and repairers, and under that there’s a sub-tier of that world – amateurs, resident pipe organ players; and then there’s a third tier, which is where I fall.”
Soucy, who was trained as a classical pianist and violinist before changing course to architecture, does not play the organ; rather, he describes himself as a pipe organ enthusiast. “I’ve loved them since I was a little kid,” he said.
The 57-year-old Soucy is fascinated less by the musical components and more by the mechanical workings of pipe organs, which he said were at one time considered “the most complex man-made machines ever, not to mention the most powerful.”
In that respect, Dorchester is rich in organ heritage. E.M. Skinner, one of the greatest American organ builders in history, made his home in the neighborhood.
This particular pipe organ, which he lovingly calls “the machine,” was originally built in 1925 for the Coolidge Theatre in Watertown. So called “theatre organs” were first developed around the turn of the century to provide music and sound effects for silent movies, and as such were doomed to a rather short lifespan as technological advancements soon rendered the silent movie obsolete. Many incorporated theatrical elements like drums, bells, and whistles. These sillier features were removed from Soucy’s “machine” around 1950 when the organ was relocated to St. Michael the Archangel Catholic Church in Lynn.
That’s where the organ was when he came across a listing for it online last fall. Bidding on and purchasing the organ was the easy part; the hard part was moving it. “There is no market for these because they take so much physical effort to move,” Soucy said. “You can’t just ‘move’ these; it’s referred to as an ‘extraction.’”
All told, it took four days, involving 18 people including riggers, electricians, and other experts, to extract the instrument from the church. Now, in Soucy’s Ashmont Hill residence, the organ poses logistical challenges that Soucy relishes as opportunities to get creative and fit the puzzle pieces together.
The console – the part with the keyboards, stops, and pedal – sits in Soucy’s living room, but most of the organ will lie directly beneath the room. Four ranks, or rows, of around 400 wooden and lead pipes will fill a room in the basement and provide the sound for the instrument.
The pipes, which range from four inches tall to ten feet tall, are scattered around Soucy’s house like some haphazard stockpile of nuclear warheads. Eventually, the pipes will be stacked and arranged horizontally to accommodate the lower ceilings. This adjustment calls for a series of smaller woodworking projects, which offer Soucy a chance to think outside the box. For example, he has already crafted a contraption out of wood and PVC piping that mounts the organ pipes and allows for easier maintenance.
In addition to these side projects, Soucy is aware that his “machine” will require constant upkeep and weekly repairs going forward. Since he is working with a tight budget, most of these responsibilities will fall to him.
“I gotta learn how to do everything, ‘cause I won’t be able to afford to hire experts,” he said. “It might sound weird, but it’s like owning an antique car. You’re either going to learn how to fix it yourself as much as you can, or you’re going to have to pay someone for it.”
In this sense, the project is a labor of love, less about the final product (which Soucy says he hopes will act as a conversation piece) and more about the hard work and attention to detail behind making such a miracle of sound possible.
Soucy harbors no grand illusions about earning fame or glory from this venture, but the instrument has nevertheless found a fitting home on Ashmont Hill. Just steps away, in All Saints’ Church, lie two of Boston’s most unusual pipe organs.
Beyond the nuts and bolts of the hobby, Soucy said the process has also introduced him to an extensive pipe-organ community that lives online in Facebook groups and other forums.
“I’ve made a lot of really cool friends doing this,” he said. “The people that are helping me are just incredible.” According to Soucy, who also runs the Facebook group “Dining in Dorchester,” this underground community is so close-knit because all of its members are creatively like-minded.
“All my other friends who are involved in pipe organs are car collectors and car nuts. All of them. There’s a certain frame of mind – they’re all into mechanics and parts and stuff, which is why the instrument is so fascinating...It’s a really cool piece of machinery. It’s a lot of fun to get into.”
Soucy hopes to have the pipe organ up and running by October. After that, he plans to install further improvements like an electronic circuit board and additional ranks of pipes. These adjustments will further alter a machine that Soucy says is, like all pipe organs, unique. “Not one is the same,” he said.