Timothy Patterson's organ is a handmade labor of love that rises
nearly 18 feet and now waits in a converted St. Paul warehouse
for a buyer with $300,000. Virtually every element of the
instrument was fabricated by Patterson of traditional materials.
"I had total freedom," he said. "This is what I
like." (RICHARD MARSHALL, Pioneer Press)
Hidden in an
old converted warehouse in the West Seventh neighborhood of St. Paul is a
pipe organ looking for a good home.
It has about 900 pipes, a case made of American walnut, an African
zebrawood keyboard and a custom-made, adjustable bench.
And if he hadn't worn cloth gloves when he carefully handled the pipes, it
would have Timothy Patterson's fingerprints all over it. Patterson built
the organ over the course of eight summers and about 5,000 hours of work.
The 53-year-old Minneapolis resident has been building and fixing organs
for 33 years, in the United States and Europe. He's worked day jobs
ranging from driving taxicabs to doing computer work to make ends meet
when the organ business waned.
"It's been a struggle for most of my life," he said.
But his latest project is even more of a labor of love than usual.
He built the instrument on speculation, with no actual buyer in mind. He
was limited by a budget for materials and the height of the ceiling of his
workshop - about 18 feet - but other than that he was free to create his
dream organ, an instrument he describes as Gothic in appearance and French
"It's a classic shape and design," he said. "This is the way the old boys
He didn't stint on materials. About 4,000 board feet of solid walnut make
up the case.
"The walnut all came from Wisconsin," he said. "This is a local-built
The wood is finished in beeswax, and the case is designed so the whole
3,000-pound instrument can be taken apart and reassembled in another
He could have bought a plastic keyboard to operate the instrument, but he
decided to make his own keyboard out of zebrawood.
"It's an oily wood. It has a certain resistance when you slide your finger
back and forth," he said. "A keyboard like this, just one keyboard, is
Magnets aid the action on the organ stop knobs, not springs. A lot more
expensive, but Patterson said it provides better performance.
"You're looking at about $5,000 worth of action," he said.
He has a patent on the electric-mechanical valves in the organ, an
invention he came up with that allows the air pressure to build up at just
the right speed to avoid turbulence in the pipes.
"We kind of give a piece of our soul when we build an organ," Patterson
It also cost him a piece of flesh. He's missing the tip of his left index
finger, the result of an accident while he was making the organ's case.
ALL FROM SCRATCH
Maybe the most unusual feature of the organ: Virtually every element of
the instrument - the woodwork, the metal pipes, the keyboard, the bench,
even the engraved brass labels for the controls - was fabricated in the
warehouse by Patterson.
"I had total freedom. I had no church architecture to fit," he said. "This
is what I like."
Patterson said only a handful of organ builders in the nation build their
own pipes instead of ordering the parts from a supplier. But Patterson
said making pipes from scratch allows him to create the sound he's trying
"I design my pipes knowing what they're going to do," he said.
"That's what sets real organ builders apart from organ assemblers," he
said. "The whole point is there's nobody around who can do the whole
project like this."
Patterson said the price tag on his organ is about $300,000, installed.
"I have to install it. Nobody else could," he said.
But it hasn't left
Patterson's workshop since he completed it two years ago. So far, he
hasn't gotten any serious interest in the instrument. He said it would be
suitable for a small to medium church, depending on the acoustics.
"A nice church would be a stone church, depending on the shape. Long,
narrow churches are always the best," he said.
"It sounds very nice. I'm very, very pleased with it. I'd take two of them
right away," said Stephen Self, an organist and music professor at Bethel
University who has played Patterson's instrument.
Self said Patterson's organ has the versatility that would make it ideal
for a church setting, but he could also see it being purchased by an organ
fan with enough money and space to stick it in his home.
Patterson said if he built the same organ today, he'd have to charge close
to $500,000 because the prices for raw materials - wood and metal - have
risen so much in recent years, often driven by demand from Asian markets.
"Just that first big pipe," Patterson said pointing at the organ. "Just
the metal is $500."
AFFINITY FOR ORGANS
Since he was young, Patterson has been both musical and mechanical, good
qualities for an organ builder.
He built his first ham radio when he was 13 and has owned Corvettes since
he was 19. He studied piano as a kid until he discovered organs and began
playing them in churches in Minneapolis while he was still a teenager. One
church organ he played was in Northeast Minneapolis.
"The organ needed maintenance and no one had money to fix it," he said.
So Patterson started working on it. A back injury prevented Patterson from
studying the organ at the University of Minnesota. Instead, he ended up
dropping out of college, driving a taxi and working on organs in his free
"At the time, it was such an interesting mystery. These wonderful machines
that produced wonderful rich sounds," he said. "Some kids like fast cars.
I liked powerful organs. That's pretty much it. It got the hormones going.
The organ was my high."
Largely self-taught, he built his first organ at Our Lady of Lourdes
Church in Minneapolis. "That organ still plays today," he said.
"The business became good," he said. "In 1980, I had four years of
contracts for future work."
He worked and studied with another local organ builder, Geoff Hunt, for
about seven years. "That's where I learned to cast metal."
But when the organ business went into a lull, he went back to school to
get a computer science degree.
After he graduated, however, the organ business seemed to be improving.
Patterson found a small, 108-year-old warehouse in St. Paul that had
originally been used to make the scaffolding used in building the
Cathedral of St. Paul. He spent the next year and a half remodeling the
building and making the specialized tools he needed to build organs.
"I could have made a lot of money in the computer world," he said. "I
chose to do this."
His computer skills still come in handy, since computers control many
modern organs. Patterson uses a laptop to do sound analysis. And he draws
up organ plans using computer-aided design programs.
But he also has to be a woodworker and a metal worker. He has to
understand electrical systems and the physics of air movement.
"I love every aspect of organ building," Patterson said. "The organ is
called the king of instruments. It's far above everything else."
"He is a very devoted man to what he does," Self said. "He loves the
mechanics of the instrument, and he loves the idea of creating an
instrument that can make beautiful sounds. He's a very, very diligent kind
of guy. Probably you could say obsessive."
Patterson works with everything from welding equipment to big lathes to
delicate dental tools to tweak a pipe to get just the right sound or
Tuning is adjusting the pitch of the organ, but voicing "is adjusting the
color of the sound. That is an art," Patterson said.
"This is a beautiful pipe," Patterson said, producing a satisfying toot by
blowing into the end of one he built for his new organ. "It speaks
perfectly because we spent a lot of time on it."
Patterson said he's built about a dozen organs, but most of his business
is in maintenance, repair and restoration of organs put into churches
built in the 1960s and 1970s that are just now showing their age.
Patterson has an apprentice working with him, a 22-year-old St. Paul
resident and fellow organ fanatic named Andrew Jirele.
When the two are in the workshop, they typically have organ music blasting
away on a bank of speakers.
"The organ is the most vibrant instrument on the face of the earth. It
allows a musician to express your soul," Patterson said. "This is my
Richard Chin can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org or 651-228-5560.
HOMEMADE ORGAN FOR SALE
903: Number of pipes
33: Number of stops
4,000: Board feet of walnut in the case
3,000: Weight of the instrument in pounds
18: How high in feet your ceiling would need to be to house it
5,000: Hours of labor to build it
0.5: Number of fingers lost in construction
300,000: Cost in dollars, installed
A trompette stop regulates a 16-foot pipe on Patterson's organ. His
lifelong attraction to the instruments began "at my First Communion. I
turned and saw the organ, and it hit me hard." (RICHARD MARSHALL, Pioneer