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Enlighten Me: Bill Church and the Archmere pipe organ

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Elleen Dallabrida
/
Delaware Public Media

How do you want to spend your retirement?  Travelling? Playing golf?

How about restoring pipe organs?

That’s what Bill Church is doing after a career that included creating Brown and Church, the iconic menswear line known for classic ties.

And his pet project is bringing a pipe organ back to Archmere Academy, which saw its previously one sold off during the Great Depression.

For this week’s Enlighten Me, contributor Eileen Dallabrida chronicles Church’s work.

The strains of the pipe organ at The Patio, the Italianate mansion on the grounds of Archmere Academy, have not been heard since the Great Depression.

But in the catacomb-like basement beneath the grand house there’s a quiet hum as a mostly volunteer corps puts together the components to recreate the instrument that graced the house when it was the home of John Jakob Raskob, an executive for both the DuPont Co. and General Motors.

“This place deserves to have its organ back,” says Bill Church, who has been working almost daily on the project at Archmere, a Catholic prep school in Claymont whose alumni include former Vice President Joe Biden.

The instrument, a 34-rank Welte-Mignon organ installed in 1917, was sold along with the mansion to the Norbertine Fathers in 1932, who established Archmere. To raise money for the school, the order sold the organ and its intricate system of 2,102 pipes.

Church became interested when his friend and neighbor, the soprano Mary Ellen Schauber, brought him to a concert at Archmere in 2015.

“We got into the music room and I saw the console and asked if it played,” he says. “That’s when I learned the organ had been gone for more than 80 years.”

Church approached Michael Marinelli, Archmere’s headmaster, himself an organist and director of liturgy and music at St. Joseph on the Brandywine Church. Could he donate money, organize volunteers and restore the organ?

“It was a dream come true,” Marinelli recalls. “We are in a position where we have to devote our resources to educating students. And then Bill comes along and volunteers to help with a project we never could have done on our own.”

Church founded the Archmere Academy Organ Society and immediately set out to locate the plans for the organ. He was surprised to learn the pipes and other components hadn’t gone far. They organ was bought by a local businessman, who stored the pieces in a dilapidated barn across Philadelphia Pike from the school, where they had languished for three-quarters of a century.

He reached out to the buyer’s heirs and learned they had just had the remnants of the organ hauled off to the landfill.

“We were two weeks too late,” he says.

….................

It’s 3 o’clock on a Tuesday afternoon and Church, garbed in jeans and work boots, strides purposefully through the maze of corridors and workrooms that run beneath the mansion. At 75, he displays the zeal with which he went toe to toe with Ralph Lauren to buy the best Italian silks.

Trained as an engineer, he is a lifelong entrepreneur. With partner Sam Brown, he founded Brown and Church, the iconic menswear line known for classic ties. They opened an inn, ran a restaurant, and restored and sold antiques.

In recent years, he has given up riding motorcycles. But he remains a gearhead, working on his 1957 Rolls Royce Silver Cloud. He frequently drives his 1997 Bentley to pick up pipes from churches that have been decommissioned and are donating their organs.

“It has a big trunk,” he says.

The Archmere organ will require 30 ranks of pipes for its main chamber and a smaller echo chamber designed to introduce eerie, mysterious notes from a remote location. So far, Church and other volunteers have collected 70 ranks, clearing out the attic at Richardson Park Methodist Church and traveling throughout the region to pick up components from schools, theaters, private homes and houses of worship.

“This way we can pick and choose the very best and wind up with a very classy organ,” he says.

He has been working since morning with Bob Parkhurst, a volunteer from South Jersey, who divides his time between Archmere and the pipe organ at Boardwalk Hall in Atlantic City.

At his side is Brant Duddy, who has repaired and restored organs for more than half a century.

Duddy, one of the most sought-after experts on pipe organs in America, is acquainted with such esteemed instruments as the John Wanamaker organ in Philadelphia and the 146-rank, 10,010-pipe organ at Longwood Gardens.

“An organ is a living thing with many parts and we are bringing this one back to health,” he says.

Ethan Sharp, one of the few paid workers on the project, is tooling leather into small pouches, part of an intricate system that includes pipes, blowers and electrical panels.

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A basement at Archmere Academy is filled with parts collected to create a pipe organ

“These are the little lungs that blow air into the pipes,” he says.

The basement at Archmere might be the ultimate man cave, equipped with copious power tools. Storage rooms house pipes, manuals—organ-speak for keyboards—and components, including pieces that will be integrated into the organ to create a percussion section. “Car horns, cymbals, xylophones,” Church says.

Waiting to be restored is a player piano much like the one the Raskob family enjoyed. Instead of playing musical scrolls it is outfitted with mechanical fingers that strike the keyboard.

“All of us love music and all of us love things mechanical. It fascinates us. Music boxes, player pianos,” he says.

….................

Raskob was a devoted Catholic who managed the 1928 presidential campaign of Al Smith, the first Catholic to run for president. He met his wife Helena at the Church of St. Mary of the Immaculate Heart on Union Street in Wilmington, where she was the organist.

Church is neither Catholic nor a musician. He was smitten by the evocative tones of the pipe organ when he was a teenager and took a date to the Roxy Theatre in Martinsville, Va.

“Until then, the only organ I had heard was the Hammond in church,” he recalls. “The moment I heard the pipe organ in the theater I became more interested in it than I was in my date.”

Years later, to celebrate his success in business, he bought a seven-rank Skinner organ. A dedicated do-it-yourselfer, he decided to install it himself.

“I unloaded it into a two-car garage so I could lay it out on the floor,” he says. “I shed a tear and wondered ‘what have I got myself into?”

Church assembled and disassembled the Skinner several times over the years, adding to the ranks as he moved to larger and grander homes. By the time he bought an 8,000-square-foot Georgian-style manse in Rehoboth Beach the organ had swelled to 29 ranks.

His reputation as a music lover had grown, too. “People would knock on the door and ask to play the organ.”

Today, Church pipes up for organs as a member of the Dickinson Theatre Organ Society, which supports concerts focused on the 66-rank organ at John Dickinson High School in Pike Creek. He and his husband John Washburn live in Greenville, with a pipe organ with five live ranks and 52 digital ranks.

Technology plays a part in the restoration of the Archmere organ, as well. The refurbished instrument will include an electronic system, replacing a striker system, in which keys are connected with components via wooden strips.

If all goes well, the strains of the organ will be heard once more in the autumn of 2019.

“This project deserves to be done,” Church says. “What a sweet sound that will be.

Beyond the pipe organ project

Before John Jakob Raskob built the Empire State Building, he built the Patio, a mansion named for its courtyard covered with a retractable stained-glass ceiling.

He called his estate Archmere—for Arch to the Sea—in deference to its setting on the banks of the Delaware River.

Since 1932, it has been the site of Archmere Academy, a Catholic prep school. The Patio, which had fallen into disrepair, is inching its way back to its days of grandeur, when guests gathered around a marble fountain decorated with carved portraits of the Raskobs’ 13 children.

The Friends of the Patio is a volunteer group devoted to restoring the mansion.

“Without them, this magnificent building would not have a second life,” says Michael Marinelli, the school’s headmaster.

In its day, Archmere boasted the latest and greatest in residential technology, including an air conditioning system that fanned air over blocks of ice. The stained glass ceiling remains intact but no longer opens. The courtyard below is a favored destination for weddings, concerts and other events.

Raskob’s wife, Helena Springer Green, described the Italianate mansion as “a castle of dreams.” She writes: “In the music room, the object of greatest interest to the music lover is the Welte-Mignon organ, although the painted wood ceiling, the walls hung with carmine velvet, and the few stately pieces of furniture combine to make this hall so harmoniously beautiful that no one would hesitate to pronounce it magnificent.”

Former Vice President Joe Biden, an Archmere grad, dreamed of attending as a boy of modest means. He writes: “From my window I could gaze upon the object of my deepest desire, my Oz: Archmere. Right in the middle of this working-class steel town, not a mile from the mills and directly across from the entrance of Brookview Apartments, was the first mansion I had ever really seen.”

The steel mills provided jobs for people in Claymont. But development pushed out the Raskobs, who disliked the noise and smell of encroaching industry. The sold the property and moved to Maryland’s Eastern Shore.

In recent years, volunteers and donors have teamed to stabilize a basement bowling alley where priests and students once competed. Now, it’s a casual gathering space.

“It had been under a foot of water,” Marinelli says.

A huge dining room where the Raskobs’ guests and family gathered has been restored; china and silver from the period are on display. A parlor with an opulent coffered ceiling has been brought back to its original glory.

The mansion’s upper level is devoted to office space, including a study upholstered in the fabric once used in General Motors cars, a reminder of Raskob, an executive for both the DuPont Co. and GM.

Bill Church, who is leading a volunteer effort to restore the pipe organ, cleaned and refurbished a floor-to-ceiling carved screen of mahogany and rosewood in the music room.

“It took three weeks of full-time work,” he says. “When you are doing a restoration right, nothing is quick, nothing is easy.”

Marinelli says restoring the Patio reflects the school’s devotion to its history and heritage.

“There’s a long way to go,” he says. “Thanks to our devoted volunteers, we are making progress.”

The Friends of the Patio is accepting donations and applications for volunteers.

Eileen Smith Dallabrida has written for Delaware Public Media since 2010. She's also written for USA Today, National Geographic Traveler, the Christian Science Monitor and many other news outlets.