When the smoke cleared and the ash settled after Tuesday’s devastating fire at Trinity Evangelical Lutheran Church, a profound silence descended on the remains of the structure.
Among the losses figured into the final tally of the fire damage will be the church’s 1879 pipe organ, as well as the graceful ribs and ceiling arches that combined to create one of the city’s warmest, friendliest acoustics for performing and hearing music.
“The organ was irreplaceable and priceless,” said John Behnke, Trinity’s organist and choir director and retired professor at Concordia University in Mequon. “It was built in 1879, cost $3,500 new, and had been well maintained since then. Its working, mechanical aspects were very stable.”
Built by the Milwaukee-based Schuelke Organ Co. and listed on the Organ Historical Society’s national register of historic organs, the organ was more than a musical machine; it was also a work of tremendous craftsmanship and artistic detail.
“The façade of the organ was incredible,” Behnke said, explaining that it had been hand carved by Erhalt Brielmeier, the same person who carved the church’s altar.
“You saw, on the tops of the organ case (the cabinet that contains the organ pipes) the same type of design that was on the altar. He also brought in some parts of the design of the steeples on the outside of the church.”
Stanton Peters, owner of Peters, Weiland & Co. Organbuilders, has maintained the instrument for many years and took organ lessons on it when he was a teenager. Maintaining the organ meant spending time in the case, up among the pipes.
“The people who built this organ took great pride in their work,” Peters said. “There were etchings on the low C and certain other pipes that were beautifully done. You would never see those etchings unless you were up in the pipes of the organ.”
But the real beauty of the Trinity organ was its sound.
“Trinity’s organ was a favorite of some of the world’s most famous organists,” Behnke said. “E. Power Biggs played on that organ and Virgil Fox would practice on it late at night when he was in town.
What a tragedy. My childhood church in Racine, St. Joseph's, has a similar organ, but I don't think it's quite as ornate.