Arts & Culture

A Tacoma-made Fritts organ gets a new home this week, piece by piece

When a church moves, it packs as much as it can into storage. Unless, that is, it has a pipe organ created by an internationally renowned — and local — organ maker.

Such was the scenario at Tacoma’s Grace Lutheran Church early this year. But fortunately for Tacoma music lovers, the financially struggling church managed to sell its Paul Fritts organ to St. Andrew’s Episcopal Church on Tacoma’s west side. Now local musicians, who arranged concerts around the 17th-century-style pipe organ, get to keep a beautiful instrument made by a local builder.

This week, the Fritts team painstakingly reassembled the organ pipe by pipe, screw by screw, in the St. Andrew’s loft.

Organist Naomi Shiga said she’s excited to have it there.

“I played concerts on it when it was in Grace Lutheran and I loved it,” she said. “When I think about practicing it at Grace, that part is sad. That church was so alive. But I feel so blessed that we have it here, and I know it will improve our worship.”

Grace Lutheran is selling its church on South Tyler Street and moving to a smaller facility, said Pastor James Matthews, attributing the move to financial considerations at the church with an aging congregation. The community’s last service in the old location will be this Sunday, and after that, the congregation will worship at Zion Lutheran until it finds a new home.

Until now, St. Andrew’s had been using a Moller organ that was plagued with electrical problems. Shiga heard that Grace was putting its organ up for sale early this year, and alerted her parish, which had wanted to do something musical to honor the late Polly Boone Hickman, who had sung in the church’s choir. It negotiated with Grace to buy the organ for $90,000, and is still raising a little more to cover installation fees and construction to expand and strengthen the balcony. Plywood will also be added underneath the cushioned pews to improve the acoustics.

The new organ was built specifically for Grace Lutheran in 1992 by Tacoma builder Paul Fritts, whose instruments — modeled after baroque European organs — are in demand around the country at institutions such as the University of Notre Dame and St. Mark’s Cathedral in Seattle. It has two manuals with a 58-note compass, 30 pedal notes and 20 mechanical stops. Typical of Fritts organs, it also has a golden-brown, elaborately carved casing.

Tacoma has four other Fritts instruments: at the University of Puget Sound, at Pacific Lutheran University, and in the private homes of organists David Dahl and Sandra Tietjen.

“I’m happy this Fritts organ has found a new worthy home,” Dahl said.

Meanwhile, the Fritts team, which dismantled the organ over the summer, was busy this week reassembling it from thousands of different parts.

Enormous wooden pipe housings were lying across pew backs, 6-inch round metal pipes nestled into the pews, and an enormous trolley stood in the aisle, flung over with blankets.

“I can’t seem to find those screws anywhere,” calls pipe maker Erik McLeod from the balcony.

“It’s a bit like putting a big puzzle together, only half the time you can’t find the corner pieces,” said Fritts’ assistant director Bruce Shull. “But we’ll figure it out.”

Shullestimates that, after voicing and tuning the organ, it should be ready for services by Thanksgiving. Shiga’s already planning a recital sometime in the new year.

Said Jonathan Wohlers, Shiga’s husband and the organist at Trinity Lutheran: “We’re just pleased that this organ is able to stay in the city and continue the mission it was built for.”