Technology hasn’t replaced painstaking hand construction of organ
By MARY JOHNSON, Hartford Business Journal Staff Writer
January 28, 2008
Its small, white sign off Woodland Street, just past Saint Francis Hospital is the only clue that there’s a 115-year-old company quietly cranking out organ after organ a few feet away. Once occupying the massive brick building at 158 Woodland St., the Austin Organ company moved to an adjacent building – at 156 Woodland St. -- more than 70 years ago. Although out of sight, it is not out of business.
Austin Organ is one of the last vestiges of industry in Hartford, said company President Michael B. Fazio, also the company’s tonal director. Fazio and his business partner, Richard Taylor, purchased the company two years ago from the Austin family.
“Hartford had a great industrial heritage, which is [nearly] gone now,” Fazio said. Austin Organs is now an international company and has built more than 2,700 organs in 49 states (Alaska is the exception), South America, China, Mexico and even one in Palestine. In Hartford alone, its credits include the organs at Mather Chapel at Trinity College, the Cathedral of St. Joseph, the Bushnell Congregational and the Hartford Seminary.
Currently, the company has four projects online for churches in Kentucky, Ohio, Connecticut and Massachusetts. Two are repair jobs, and two call for the construction of new organs.
That mirrors the company’s overall business breakdown: half is in organ rebuilding, and the other half is in new work.
Projects can range in time, from six months to as much as 18 months, and prices vary depending on the size of the organ and the space it’s constructed to fit. Fazio said the smallest organs cost between $150,000 and $300,000. The largest organs, like for 2,000-member churches, go for more than $1 million.
New management hasn’t meant major changes for the company. Many of Austin Organ’s full-time staffers have several decades of company service behind them, and there are no plans to usher out the old and haul in a bevy of new technologies and employees.
In fact, the vital innards of an Austin organ are still constructed almost entirely by hand. Organ designs are sketched more often than they are clicked together with computer programs. And what machines are used in the factory date to the 1920s.
“The Austin company’s always been very staid and traditional,” Fazio said. “As a result, they stayed in business.”
On the factory’s third floor, Jadwiga Majewski reaches for a piece of wood with a wrinkled hand and applies white goo to its surface with a small brush.
On the fourth floor, Daniel Kingman saws the tips off 150-year-old pipes to coax from the wood a more precise tone. 2008 marks his 40th year with the company.
Back down on the first floor, Tony Valdez hammers a tubular hunk of metal that will become an organ pipe. He’s been with the company for 25 years “’cause I love building organs,” he said with a smile.
Even the organ industry has an evolving culture, with trends and innovations constantly threatening classicism. For example, between the 1960s and 1980s, the organ culture experienced a baroque revival, said Wesleyan University organist and international performer Ronald Ebrecht.
But Austin Organs “didn’t ever follow,” said Ebrecht, who is currently working with Austin Organs to create an organ for the Congregational Church of Brookfield. It stubbornly stayed above the passing fad, which likely saved it from the tragic fate of other organ companies.
Also, traditional construction techniques ensure easy maintenance, even 80 years from now. Unlike a computer or a cell phone, an Austin organ is never outdated. Classic construction makes for eternal music.