The Agnes Flanagan Chapel Organ (LJP)

by Raley Schweinfurth

The rain dusted the streets of Portland with a fine covering of shimmery droplets.  My nose delicately pressed against the cool surface of the Lewis & Clark campus map as I quickly glanced up and through the windshield.  My mother and I were having difficulty finding a place to park the car, and we couldn’t find the ubiquitous Parking Lot Number Four.  Suddenly a silver cross materialized, perched on a building outlined against grey clouds.  It was the Agnes Flanagan Chapel and my first clue that I was headed in the correct direction.

My boots splashed in the glassy puddles lining the brick pathway to the chapel.  The puddles reflected the four totem pole-inspired statues of the four Biblical evangelists, Matthew, Mark, Luke, and John, designed by Chief Lelooska of the Cherokee tribe to symbolically combine Christian symbolism with Northwest Coast Native American culture (“Agnes Flanagan Chapel”).  As I approached the Native American-inspired, conical building designed by architect Paul Thiry (“Agnes Flanagan Chapel”), I stepped through one of the four black doors and took off my wet rain jacket.  I could feel the smooth surface of each rock on the stony floor beneath my feet.  The sound of my footsteps echoed throughout the chapel, and I sat on a springy, blue cushion of the last pew.  I studied the 16-sided interior that was illuminated with downward lights lining the walls.  Cylindrical pendant lights were suspended above the main staging area.  Slanted wood panels, joined in triangular groupings, soared as they reached the ceiling’s apex.  The construction suggested that the chapel was designed to enhance the acoustical properties of the building.  I admired the refined ceiling and the beautiful multicolored panels of stained glass crafted by Gabriel Loire of Chartres, France that ringed the ceiling and depicted the creation story from the book of Genesis (The Associated Press).  After a few minutes of being engrossed in my surroundings, a tiny glimmer of dazzling light seized my attention.  I craned my neck backwards and lifted my eyes to the ceiling where numerous silver objects were revealed.  Although initially unsure about the purpose of these objects dangling from the ceiling, I soon realized that these were the silver pipes of the Casavant organ housed inside the chapel.

Attracting “worldwide attention” for its innovative design, the organ of the Agnes Flanagan Chapel is the world’s only circular pipe organ (“One-of-a-kind Organ Gains Nationwide Media Attention”).  Compared “to a chandelier and an ice cream cone,” the 45-year-old organ contains more than 5,000 pipes ranging in size from an inch and a half long and a pencil’s width in diameter to more than 20 feet long and nearly 15 inches in diameter (Garrett).  Many builders were approached for the organ’s construction (Garrett), but only one organ builder, the renowned Lawrence “Larry” Phelps, accepted the architectural and acoustical challenge to build Thiry’s vision of a pipe organ suspended from a conical ceiling (Long).  Phelps, who was known to “love challenges,”  was commissioned by Lewis & Clark College and worked with the Canadian company Casavant Frères to construct this unique organ that required 3 months to install (Long) and “an element of luck to make things work” (Garrett).  With 5000 pipes to scale and voice to the acoustical properties of the room, Phelps said the organ’s installation was indeed difficult due to the unusual ceiling location and distinctive structure (Garrett).  Today, the organ remains as one of the most expensive instruments in the world to maintain (Garrett).

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Figure 1. James R. Stettner, Artist’s Conception of the Agnes Flanagan Chapel Exterior, 1988.
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Figure 2. James R. Stettner, Artist’s Conception of the Agnes Flanagan Chapel Interior, 1988.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

I met Dr. Lee Garrett, Professor Emeritus of Music at Lewis & Clark College and curator of the organ, early on a Saturday morning at the Agnes Flanagan Chapel, as the facility is frequently reserved for college and community events.  Garrett, a smiling gentleman wearing circular glasses, was dressed in a tan jacket covering his plaid shirt and dark pants.  He appeared from a stairway leading to several rooms below the main floor and enthusiastically asked, “Are you here to see the organ?”  He eagerly led me towards a set of dimly lit stairs near the entrance of the chapel and up a flight of steps lined with red tape.  He quickly offered me a seat in one of several black plastic chairs near the organ console.

As I gazed at the organ, a massive conical structure dangling effortlessly above church pews and blending seamlessly within its surroundings, I learned of the organ’s history.  Although the initial budget for the construction of the Agnes Flanagan Chapel included a pipe organ (Garrett), the realized building costs prevented the construction of an organ before the structure was completed in 1968 (Long).  Nevertheless, philanthropists George and Agnes Flanagan, who had already donated funds for the building’s construction, led a new fundraising effort (Garrett) and provided additional funds for the manufacturing and installation of an organ shortly after the chapel’s dedication in 1969 (“Agnes Flanagan Chapel”).  The Flanagans were “convinced that an organ was an important investment”  and their commitment to its construction was unwavering (Long).

George and Agnes Flanagan lived in Medford, Oregon and were staunch patrons of the arts and education (Garrett).  George Flanagan served as Vice President and General Manager of Elk Lumber Company in Medford from 1946-1965 (Southern Oregon Historical Society).  Agnes Flanagan became a trustee of Lewis & Clark College in the 1950s and remained a life trustee (Garrett).  According to Garrett,  “Agnes always loved music, especially organ and choir music.  She was a wonderful poet and a very, very gracious woman.”  Thus, the chapel was named in her honor to specifically recognize her financial and intellectual gifts to the college (Garrett).

Ginni Peterson, organist at First Presbyterian Medford Church who attended church services with the Flanagans in Medford, agreed to be interviewed by phone and corroborated Agnes Flanagan’s fondness for music.  Peterson noted that Agnes “loved singing and knew every verse of every hymn in the hymnal.”  Similar to Garrett’s recollection of Agnes Flanagan, Peterson observed that Agnes Flanagan’s generosity and commitment to education extended beyond music, as she also was dedicated to working for Christian education and women’s issues.  Peterson further recalled, “George was quiet, but friendly.  He was more laid back.  But Agnes was very, very friendly.  When she laughed, the whole room knew she was laughing.  They were very giving people.” (Peterson).

The Flanagans’ enthusiasm for the organ they brought to fruition was apparent in their willingness to drive from Medford to Portland to hear each performance by an organ student at Lewis & Clark College (Garrett).  Garrett recalled that George and Agnes’ commitment to the organ was so unrelenting that they would attend all organ recitals, regardless of the organist’s experience level or the duration of the performed musical piece (Garrett).  The Flanagans’ frequent presence on campus also was observed by Sue Jensen (Jensen), current Oregon Episcopal School faculty member, whom I was surprised to learn was one of the first organ students of Garrett (Garrett).  To further describe Agnes Flanagan’s enthusiasm, Garrett recalled how he met Agnes Flanagan when he was a new faculty member at the college.  “Agnes was on campus listening to some organ students play, and she arranged for me to come to the chapel.  I thought, ‘I am going to meet the donor of the organ ‒ this very wealthy woman ‒ and how do I present myself as a gentleman?  I won’t offer to shake her hand unless she offers her hand first.’”  Garrett continued, “One of the students immediately exclaimed, ‘Oh Agnes, there’s Dr. Garrett!’ so I waited for her to come down to where I was standing.  I looked to see if she would offer her hand, but instead she came running up to me and threw her arms around me ‒ and that’s how it was from that day.”

The Flanagans’ graciousness extended to Garrett’s family, too (Garrett).  During an invited trip to the Flanagans’ home in Medford, Garrett and his family experienced the true benevolence of George and Agnes first-hand.  After leaving their one-and-a-half-year-old son with Agnes at the Flanagan home for a nap, George took Garrett and his wife to visit the Flanagans’ lumber mill to observe its operations.  However, when Garrett and his wife returned with George, Agnes told them of an amusing event that had transpired in their absence.  She had tried to peek at Garrett’s son while napping, but had instead found him playing in the Flanagans’ bathroom.  He was “dipping little trinkets” into the toilet bowl, “which she just thought was hilarious,” recalled Garrett.  “She was a person of such wonderful good humor,”  reminisced Garrett, as he described how this potentially embarrassing event for the Garrett family became a fond memory for him of the Flanagans’ magnanimous nature (Garrett).

Sitting at the organ console, Garrett cheerfully recalled how organ music inspired his musical career.  Garrett’s first childhood recollection of organ music occurred when his parents brought him to to their Episcopal church.  “As a three-year-old, I just loved that sound. There was good music and stained glass windows,”  remembered Garrett.  “All those stimuli for a three-year-old” helped to influence Garrett’s love for music, and he added, “probably all those people in the interesting looking costumes (the vestments) [did] too.”  From an early age, Garrett knew “what [he] wanted to do.

Figure 3.  Raley Schweinfurth, Dr. Lee Garrett, Professor Emeritus of Music at Lewis & Clark College and Organ Curator, 2016.

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Figure 3.  Raley Schweinfurth, Dr. Lee Garrett, Professor Emeritus of Music at Lewis & Clark College and Organ Curator, 2016.

Garrett was teaching at a college in Ohio when Lewis & Clark College invited him to apply for a faculty position teaching Organ, Music History, and Music Theory.  Although several of his friends had also applied for the job, Garrett humbly confessed, “I was the lucky guy.”  He joined the Lewis & Clark faculty in 1973 (Garrett).  Garrett recalled, “I had known about this organ because it had gotten national attention for its unusual design ‒ but I had not played it.”  Garrett’s first opportunity to play the organ occurred during his job interview, when he was asked to perform a short instrumental concert; however, he previously had played other organs by the same builder in Colorado, Iowa, and Ohio (Garrett).  Garrett’s eyes beamed as he described his initial experience at the Agnes Flanagan console, hearing the organ’s enticing sound.  He remarked, “I liked the sound of it very, very much ‒ but it sounded quite differently in this room than I [had] expected.”  For him, “it was a challenging instrument to play because you don’t hear it at the console the way people do downstairs” (Garrett).  He likened this first interaction to “making friends […] as no two pipe organs are alike”  (Garrett).  Moreover, Garrett described the process of becoming acquainted with the organ as “find[ing] some things that you especially love,” and “want[ing] to spend more time getting to know this friend.”

The most substantial adjustment for Garrett in playing the Agnes Flanagan Chapel organ was the process of familiarizing himself with the unique acoustical properties associated with the organ’s design.  As Garrett explained, “the converging beams of the chapel’s conical ceiling create an optical illusion which make the organ look smaller and closer to the ground than it actually is.”  As such, the organ’s “appearance and pipes are customized for the visual and acoustical properties of the room where it’s housed” (Garrett).  When sound comes out of the pipes laterally, the organ is “unusually difficult [to play] because the organist plays from the balcony and the organ is suspended from the ceiling,” (Garrett) allowing “the music to reflect off the floor and into the crowd” (The Associated Press).  Since the pipes circle a “bucket” suspended from the ceiling apex, some pipes face the organist directly, whereas others project towards the opposite wall of the chapel (Garrett).  This presents an unique challenge for the performer, as the organist is unable to hear all the pipes equally.  However, technological advancements have allowed for the addition of a sequencer to the organ that digitally records console input to be played back through the pipes, as opposed to a speaker, which allows for the organist to listen to recordings from the chapel floor (Garrett).  This enhancement has helped organists to improve their playing of a variety of music, including cantatas and works by Bach, which are some of Garrett’s favorites.

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Figure 4.  Raley Schweinfurth, Pipes Suspended from the Agnes Flanagan Chapel Ceiling, 2016.

Maintaining a suspension organ presents distinct challenges for the Lewis & Clark organ curator.  Due to the organ’s size and the height of the chapel’s conical ceiling, one must ascend to an elevation of five stories to get to the pipes, which Garrett described as an area “large enough to park a car.”  As Professor Emeritus, Garrett reflected, “My job was to make sure that all working parts were in good order.  However, a curator does not usually have to climb the equivalent of five stories to maintain an organ.”  As I was unable to ascend to the top of the organ for my interview, Garrett detailed his lofty experiences from within the organ.  “When you get up there and look down, you gulp because you realize how far up you are,” Garrett explained.  A ladder connects the two main levels of the organ, and the pipes are arranged linearly (from tall to short) to achieve a good blend of sound (Garrett).  Small, walkable boards are used by anyone servicing the organ, as a vast number of pipes occupy the majority of available space (Garrett).  While the organ receives a major tuning twice a year, typically from a service technician whom Garrett supervises, Garrett himself often crawled up into the bucket or into a shuttered box known as the organ swell, to complete minor repairs or tunings (Garrett).  Initially, he used a “rickety ladder” to gain access to the bucket, but the ladder “was too dangerous” and was eventually replaced by a mobile, electric lift that provided much safer access (Garrett).  Garrett never completed any major mechanical fixes to the organ, leaving those “for the service technician so that the technician could anticipate any future problems” (Garrett).  “My job was mainly to play and teach,” Garrett explained.  Nevertheless,  he “couldn’t begin to tell” how many times he’d been up in the bucket during his 40 plus years as curator to “tune a few notes” (Garrett).

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Figure 5.  Lee Garrett, Pipes at the Top of the Organ, n.d.
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Figure 6. Lee Garrett, Copper Pipes in the Swell Division, Located in the Lowest Section of the Main Organ, n.d.

For decades the organ endured a relatively trouble-free existence, until it was severely damaged in 2014.  As a torrent of rain fell from the sky, “the roof leaked very, very badly,” recalled Garrett.  Water seeped onto the tops of the pipes and covered the wooden wind chests along the back wall (Garrett).  Unfortunately, this event occurred over a weekend, when the chapel was not in use.  Garrett, unaware of the problem, arrived at the chapel early on a Monday morning and made the discovery.  “It was sickening,”  uttered Garrett dishearteningly.  “There was damage to the front of the casework, and the wind chests were warped beyond repair.  As organ curator, I had to determine let’s repair this and let’s replace this,” remarked Garrett, who was ultimately responsible for the restoration.  The pipes had to be cleaned, the wind chests had to be entirely rebuilt by an organ specialist, and the wind trunks (which supplied the wind to the chests) had to be replaced (Garrett).  Moreover, cosmetic case work had to be refinished by woodworkers from the college.  In total, the organ required a $40,000 restoration (Garrett).

Garrett claimed that the average listener would not be able to detect any differences in the sound of the organ following the restoration, but differences in sound do occur naturally over time as pipes accumulate dust.  Thus, the roof leak provided the unexpected opportunity for a thorough cleaning of all organ pipes and chests during the restoration process.  Besides saving the college and any future curator from this arduous scheduled maintenance, the cleaning minimized future disruptions to the chapel and its users (Garrett).

For Garrett, the organ at the Agnes Flanagan chapel represents forty years of his life.  “I did lots of recitals on it, I did lots of teaching on it, and I’ve had wonderful students who have gone on to wonderful careers,” recalled Garrett.  For him, “watching these students succeed [has been] a great joy”  and has been a part of what makes this organ special to him (Garrett).  As Phelps commented following the successful completion of the organ’s exacting construction and installation, “We were lucky” (Garrett).  And thanks to Lee Garrett, this organ will continue to provide enjoyment and inspiration for many new generations of listeners who also will be fortunate to experience it.

I consider myself to be among one of the lucky people of a new generation who have been personally impacted by the Agnes Flanagan Chapel organ.  As I was unable to interact with the organ during my interview with its curator, Garrett’s former student, Sue Jensen, arranged for me to experience the magnificence of the organ several weeks later.  Sitting at the console of the immense and powerful musical instrument, I felt a tremendous sense of awe.

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Figure 7. Sue Jensen, Raley Schweinfurth playing the Agnes Flanagan Chapel Organ, 2016.

As I pressed down my first key at the console, I immediately noticed a difference between this organ and the only other organ I have played, the organ at St. John the Baptist Episcopal Church on the Oregon Episcopal School campus.  The responsive electric touch of the Lewis & Clark Casavant organ was similar to a button press, drastically different from the resistance of a moving lever typically associated with a piano key.  Perhaps the most notable difference, however, was the acoustical feedback.  Upon pushing a key on the Casavant organ console, sound was not immediately reflected to my ear.  Instead, a delay existed in the production of sound and the reflection of sound to the console.  Although this delay was probably less than a second, its significance altered my playing.  I found that in order for me to maintain a steady tempo while playing, it became necessary for me to ignore the organ output and to focus solely on the playing of keys, without the added benefit of being able to make adjustments from auditory feedback.  In addition, I was able to experience the organ’s voluminous sound away from the console by standing amongst the pews on the chapel floor, directly under the organ’s large bucket.  The emanating music seemed to cascade down from the heavens, as if the skies had opened with angels singing from above and trumpets bellowing downwards.   I had never heard an organ with such enveloping acoustics that surrounded my very being.  It was truly an ethereal experience, which I hope to share in this audio clip of me playing, “Michau Qui Causoit Ce Grand Bruit From Livre De Noëls Pour L’Orgue Et Le Clavecin Paris,” an arrangement by Jean-François Dandrieu, on the Agnes Flanagan Chapel organ (Schweinfurth).

Works Cited

The Associated Press. “Lewis & Clark’s circular pipe organ is one-of-a-kind.” The Oregonian. Oregon Live, 13 June 2012. Web.  17 Oct. 2016. <http://www.oregonlive.com/pacific-northwest-news/index.ssf/2012/06/ lewis_clarks_circular_pipe_org.html>.

Garrett, Lee. Copper Pipes in the Swell Division, Located in the Lowest Section of the Main Organ, n.d.  Photograph.

—. Personal interview. 29 Oct. 2016.

—. Pipes at the Top of the Organ. n.d.  Photograph.

Jensen, Sue.  Personal interview. 1 Dec. 2016.

—. Raley Schweinfurth playing the Agnes Flanagan Chapel Organ. 2016.  Photograph.

Lewis & Clark. “Agnes Flanagan Chapel.” Spiritual Life. Lewis & Clark, n.d. Web. 17 Oct. 2016. <https://www.lclark.edu/offices/spiritual_life/agnes_flanagan_chapel/&gt;.

—. “One-of-a-kind Organ Gains Nationwide Media Attention.” Newsroom. Lewis & Clark, 14 June 2012. Web. 17 Oct. 2016. <http://www.lclark.edu/live/news/ 16760-one-of-a-kind-organ-gains-nationwide-media-attention>.

Long, Genevieve J. “Celebrating the Chapel Organ.” The Chronicle Magazine 5 Sep. 2011: n. Pag. Web. 17 Oct. 2016. <https://www.lclark.edu/live/news/13148-celebrating-the-chapel-organ&gt;.

O.H.S. Pipe Organ Database. Casavant, Opus 3079, 1970: Agnes Flanagan Chapel. Technical report no. 8217. Oregon Historical Society, 29 Mar. 2010. Web. 17 Oct. 2016. <http://database.organsociety.org/SingleOrganDetails.php?OrganID=8217&gt;.

Peterson, Ginni.  Personal interview. 3 Dec. 2016.

Schweinfurth, Raley.  Dr. Lee Garrett. 2016. Photograph.

—.“Michau Qui Causoit Ce Grand Bruit From Livre De Noëls Pour L’Orgue Et Le Clavecin Paris.” 1759. By Jean-François Dandrieu, 2016, MP3.

—. Pipes Suspended from the Agnes Flanagan Chapel Ceiling. 2016. Photograph.

Southern Oregon Historical Society. “Oral History Interview with George Flanagan.” Southern Oregon Historical Society. 27 Jan. 2011. Web. 17 Oct. 2016. <http://sohs.pastperfectonline.com/archive/ CD4B4089-B266-4F16-999A-473468468160>.

Stettner, James R. Artist’s conception of the chapel exterior. 27 Dec. 1988. Pipe Organ Database. Oregon Historical Society. Web. 17 Oct. 2016.

—. Artist’s conception of the chapel interior cross section. 27 Dec. 1988. Pipe Organ Database. Oregon Historical Society. Web. 17 Oct. 2016.

 

 

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