Watch CBS News

The fight to save New York's historic Erben Organ

Saving the Erben Organ
Saving the Erben Organ 00:53

In New York City's SoHo neighborhood, inside a church known as St. Patrick's Old Cathedral, stands a pipe organ taller than a goal post on a football field.

"When you go behind the case and look into the forest of nearly 2,500 pipes and runs of trackers, it is like walking into a 19th-century pneumatic computer," gushes the church's music director of 15 years, Jared Lamenzo. "Some past vision of the future."

The Erben Organ in Old St. Patrick's Cathedral Joshua South Photography

The Erben Organ, as it was named after its creator, was designed by world-renowned New York City organ builder Henry Erben near the culmination of his six-decade career. Its structure was erected by his team of highly skilled American and European immigrant craftsmen, and the organ was delivered to St. Patrick's by horse and carriage in 1868, just three years after the end of the Civil War.

Today, it is the only large, mid-19th-century pipe organ left in America that's intact in its original acoustic space. And Lamenzo believes it is one of the most important historic instruments in the nation.

"Sound is intangible," explains Lamenzo. "It gets inside you and makes you feel something. And beyond the actual visual and mechanical aspects [of the organ], that's what people are affected by. One woman said she 'practically levitated' when she heard the organ for the first time."

The inner workings of the Erben Organ Joshua South Photography

He says even children appreciate the historic instrument.

"Kids love pulling the stops and hearing all the different sounds and pitches of the pipes. One child thought the sound of the 16' Double Open pipe in the facade was an earthquake; another thought it was a hungry dinosaur."

And his fond memories of the instrument go on and on.

"I played a fifth on the pedals once, and a dog thought it was a growl and started barking. One wedding couple were adamant they didn't want pipe organ at their wedding. When they came in, I was practicing, and they thought there was a string quartet playing. They said, 'We want your strings at our wedding.' Of course it was the organ!"

The Erben Organ soaring over Old St. Patrick's Cathedral Joshua South Photography

Sadly, though, after nearly 150 years of wear and tear -- tens of thousands of Masses, funerals, weddings, and concerts, not to mention hours and hours of practice -- the organ is beginning to require more maintenance than the dedicated organ master can manage on his own.

"When I first arrived at the console, many stops were taped over with 'Don't use' and 'Don't touch' scribbled on tape," Lamenzo tells CBS News of the first time he sat down to play the famous organ. "It seemed like a challenge. Once I started playing those pipes again, they just came to life."

 Back in 1868, the organ cost St. Pat's $15,000. Today, however, it will cost far, far more to keep the historic instrument in use.

The inner beauty of the Erben Organ

"I like to tinker, and my background with my dad's original, historic automobiles certainly helped," says Lamenzo, who studied mechanical engineering at Harvard. "Sometimes I have done emergency repair work myself during a Mass. However, it is important to call in specialists when needed. You never want to damage an historic instrument. 'Do no harm' is the maxim."

So, the music director, who originally moved to Manhattan to work as a banker after college, is among a group of people who've established a non-profit called Friends of the Erben Organ, dedicated to the restoration and preservation of the instrument. By the time of the organ's 150th anniversary next year, they hope to raise $2 million toward this goal and to fund programming around the instrument for years to come.

View CBS News In
CBS News App Open
Chrome Safari Continue
Be the first to know
Get browser notifications for breaking news, live events, and exclusive reporting.