The restoration of the Grand Temple pipe organ at Freemasons’ Hall is helping to preserve a vital piece of this Art Deco building’s history. Charles Grace tells Sarah Holmes how the project came about
With a firm grip on the scaffolding in front of him, Charles Grace takes a moment to appreciate the elevated view over the Grand Temple. Behind him, a golden wall of freshly gilded organ pipes stand caged in a rigid rig of steel rods and orderly wooden planks.
It’s been a particularly busy year for the senior Freemason, who has been overseeing the restoration of the Grand Temple’s pipe organ. Although the work has been progressing steadily since January 2014, few masons will have noticed anything different going on at Great Queen Street. For Charles, this is a good thing. Despite the size of the project, he has gone to great lengths to make sure that the renovation work doesn’t disrupt the normal running of Freemasons’ Hall.
As a long-serving member of the Committee of General Purposes, Charles played a central role in the decision to renovate, rather than replace, the Grand Temple’s eighty-one-year-old organ. ‘It’s part of the heritage of Freemasons’ Hall, so we have a duty to protect it,’ he says. ‘This building pays tribute to more than 3,000 Freemasons who lost their lives in World War I, so it’s apt that the organ is being restored during the centenary year of that terrible conflict.’
The idea for restoring the organ first came about in 2009 when an inspection by the organ consultant, Ian Bell, revealed the need for extensive repairs. With most organs requiring a professional overhaul every twenty-five years, the Grand Temple’s organ had survived three times longer than that thanks to the constant temperature and humidity levels as well as its dedicated maintenance. Nevertheless, eighty years of accumulated wear threatened to irreparably damage the tonal accuracy of its pipes.
But now, thanks to funding from the Supreme Grand Chapter’s reserves, the organ will be restored to its former glory with roughly half of the money being spent on cleaning, repairing and re-voicing the existing mechanisms, which include an astounding 2,220 pipes and forty-three stops. The remainder of the funding will be spent on mounting a new case of some four hundred pipes on the east wall of the Grand Temple.
The result of all the renovation work will be a clearer, louder sound, and a focal point from which the organist can lead the Grand Temple’s 1,700-strong congregation in song. It’s a rousing quality that the present organ peculiarly lacks.
‘This is quite an unusual design,’ explains Charles. ‘Most organs have a focal point, but the present instrument comprises two cases of pipes that shout at each other across the dais. When the Grand Temple is full and everyone’s singing lustily, it’s difficult for those in the west to hear the organ, so the new case will make a huge difference, as well as giving the Grand Temple an extra visual wow factor.’
The craftsmen undertaking the restoration are from Durham-based organ builders Harrison & Harrison – a company responsible for rebuilding and maintaining some of the UK’s most famous organs, including those at the Royal Festival Hall and Westminster Abbey. Their experience of working with traditional organs is reassuring to Charles, who is eager that the new section remains consistent with the look and sound of the original. The new pipes will be made from a tin-and-lead alloy in keeping with the design of Brother Henry Willis, who built the organ in 1933.
‘I’d love to get a series of subscription concerts going as we’re transforming a good organ into a magnificent one.’ Charles Grace
It’s an extensive undertaking for Harrison & Harrison, who also face the added challenge of working around the Grand Temple’s busy schedule of events.
‘It’s been quite a juggling act to make sure we don’t interfere with the day-to-day running of the Grand Temple,’ explains Charles. ‘We’ve relied on the occasional spare periods of time to carry out some of the work. But from mid-December, when the Temple is quietest, we’ll be able to get the bulk of the work done.’
Fortunately, much of the early work has been completed in Durham, where the existing organ and console were moved for cleaning and repairing in January. ‘It’s a vitally important part of the renovation process,’ explains Andy Scott, head voicer at Harrison & Harrison. ‘As soon as the dirt starts to build up, it can dull the pitch and sound quality of the pipes, and adds to the deterioration of the worn mechanism, causing notes to stick on or not play at all.’
The length of the pipes, as well as the material they’re constructed from, both play a fundamental role in determining their pitch – so it’s important that the correct techniques are used to clean them.
The longer, wooden pipes, which create the deeper notes, can reach up to sixteen feet in length, and have to be vacuumed and varnished. Meanwhile, the shorter metallic pipes, which create the higher notes, and can be as short as a few inches, have to be soaked and scrubbed in soapy water.
The pipes will then be returned to the Grand Temple and divided between chambers hidden in the opposite walls of the eastern dais. The case containing all the new pipes will be mounted on the east wall above the console, facing directly down the Grand Temple.
Like the other two cases, the new case will be decorated with the same elaborately carved Art Deco motifs and poly-resin embellishments. A grille of eighteen pipes, all gilded in gold leaf, will be visible at the front. ‘It takes three different crafts alone to build its case,’ explains Charles. ‘That’s how complex a pipe organ is. It’s more than just an instrument – it’s an actual fixture of the building.’
As well as the pipes, Harrison & Harrison must also refurbish the whole mechanical structure, including the enormous wind chests that sit underneath the pipes. By driving pressurised air through the pipes, the wind chests help to produce the organ’s distinctive, multi-tonal sound. Electric blowers located underneath the Grand Temple supply the wind chests with air.
‘It takes three different crafts to build the case. That’s how complex a pipe organ is. It’s more than an instrument – it’s an actual fixture of the building.’ Charles Grace
‘Each pipe produces a single note,’ explains Charles. ‘All pipes are arranged in ranks of common sound and pitch, and when the organist wants to play a particular rank, he selects the corresponding stop. This releases air from the wind chest to a particular rank of pipes. The keys on the main console then control which pipes the air passes through.’
It’s a thoroughly complicated system, and one that has taken Charles hours of surfing the web and scouring YouTube videos to understand. As part of the renovation, a new electronic feature will be fitted that allows the organ to store digital recordings of the music played on the keyboard. This means that a wide range of pre-recorded music will be able to be played on the organ at the touch of a button.
It’s something that will add impact to the public tours of the Grand Temple, and is a key example of the way in which the latest renovations not only safeguard the heritage of the Freemasons’ Hall, but also enhance it.
With all things going to plan, the restoration work is due to be completed by March 2015 and Charles hopes that the new organ will become a symbol of celebration not just for United Grand Lodge’s approaching tercentenary, but for everyone who visits the Hall.
‘I’d love to get a series of subscription concerts going, as we’re transforming a good organ into a magnificent one – so I’d hope a few great organists would play here,’ says Charles.
In keeping with this vision, Charles hopes to establish a partnership with the Royal College of Organists to give aspiring musicians an opportunity to rehearse and perform on the Grand Temple’s amazing instrument.
‘It’s a fantastic opportunity to open ourselves up to the public, and to get this incredible organ being played more than ever,’ says Charles. ‘We need to make the most of it.’
The original surround sound
A pipe organ produces music through a vast array of real pipes placed in different locations around the room, effectively making it one of the first surround sound systems. In contrast, electronic organs only simulate the sound of the pipes from a central loudspeaker. The result is noticeably flatter and lacks the true fullness of many individual pitches blending together.
Letters for the Editor – No. Spring 2016
I would like to congratulate all those involved in the refurbishment of the pipe organ in the Grand Temple at Freemasons’ Hall and the excellent write-up in Freemasonry Today. I am 86 years of age and partially disabled. I joined the John Compton Organ Company, London as an apprentice in 1944, and trained as a voicer and tuner under John Degens, a former Walkers employee. After two years’ national service I then spent the next few years as a voicer and tuner for Nicholson of Worcester. I would very much appreciate knowing the specifications of the magnificent organ.
Doug Litchfield, Zetland Lodge, No. 1005, Gloucester, Gloucestershire
Recent articles in Freemasonry Today about the organ refurbishment are much appreciated. Lodge organists and organists in general would, I feel sure, appreciate even more to see the full specifications, old and new: that is, names of stops to each department, list of accessories, etc, so as to get a sense of the full tonal architecture and its possibilities, past and present.
Malcolm Dilley, Warton Lodge, No. 8411, Carnforth, West Lancashire
Letters to the Editor – No. 30 Summer 2015
I read the articles by both Charles Grace and Ian Bell regarding the Grand Temple Willis pipe organ restoration with great interest. I am a masonic organist in the South Wales Province, where most masonic centres are furnished with electronic or digital organs.
Your articles reveal that there are two other Willis pipers in the Great Queen Street building but that they are not in working order. I visited Great Queen Street last November to play the organ for the installation ceremony of the American Lodge. The ceremony was allocated to Lodge Room No. 8 where I was horrified to find that the organ was little more than a squawk box. I looked into several of the other lodge rooms to discover similar disappointing instruments.
Whilst the Grand Temple organ restoration and necessary enhancement is to be applauded, I wish to have the Great Queen Street management reminded that if ceremony’s musical accompaniment and enhancement is really desirable, then it is absolutely necessary to encourage masonic brethren to aspire to be a lodge organist by furnishing the best tool for the purpose, and that a pillar of attainment as a lodge organist might be to eventually play the Grand Temple organ.
Michael Hayes, Venables Llewelyn Lodge, No. 3756, Porthcawl, South Wales
Charles Grace, Project Manager for the Grand Temple organ restoration, responds:
We have recently evaluated two one-manual organs and decided on the Viscount Cadet, 10 of which are being delivered in mid May and 10 in September, funded by UGLE from the normal charges made to lodges and chapters for room hire and storage.
The organs, which are versatile enough to be played by all masonic organists, will be installed in most of the lodge/chapter rooms. The choice of organ in No. 10, where a larger instrument is required, is under consideration.
Letters to the Editor – No. 29 Spring 2015
Direction in the Temple
You published two letters in the last issue on the subject of the square and compasses being upside down on the organ cases in the Grand Temple. I too made enquiries of those who might know the answer, but regrettably it remains a masonic mystery. On the bright side, I can reveal that, in the same position on the new case being erected on the east wall above the organ console, there will be a Royal Arch triple tau – and I will ensure that it is the right way up!
Charles Grace, Project Coordinator, Grand Temple organ restoration
‘The earth constantly revolving on its axis in its orbit round the sun, and Freemasonry being universally spread over its surface, it necessarily follows that the sun must always be at its meridian with respect to Freemasonry.’
Similarly, the square and compasses will always be the right way up with respect to Freemasonry. Given that the building was built as a memorial to those Freemasons who died in the First World War, and that some may have been from other parts of the Commonwealth, it is perhaps possible that the square and compasses was positioned accordingly.
Mark Northway, Suffield Lodge, No. 1808, Aylsham, Norfolk
Letters to the Editor – No. 28 Winter 2014
Compass and square
I am a young Master Mason. However, in your otherwise interesting and informative account of the restoration of the pipe organ in the Grand Temple of Freemasons’ Hall, the square and compasses adorning the organ case (while beautifully gilded) are clearly upside down. Does this pertain to some ancient and mysterious side order, of which I am neither a member nor even aware, or perhaps has it just been affixed the wrong way up?
Tim Myatt, Apollo University Lodge, No. 537, Oxfordshire
In discussion with a number of brethren in my lodge, we are curious to know why the square and compasses visible behind the left shoulder of Charles Grace are upside down. The popular view among us all is that they are positioned to face in the direction of the Great Architect, in whose glory the beautiful music that emanates from this magnificent instrument is played. None of us considers it to be an error of any kind – knowing as we do that no such fundamental mistakes are likely to have been made by those who either commissioned or made the instrument. We look forward with great interest to any information you are able to provide.
Guy R Purser, Pagham Lodge, No. 8280, Sussex
Note from the Editor
Having received several queries about the compass and square visible in the picture of the Grand Temple organ in the autumn issue of Freemasonry Today (page 29), we enquired of our best in-house historians. Unfortunately, nobody seems to know of any reason why, on the Grand Lodge organ, the square and compasses should be orientated in the opposite way to how they are normally depicted.
There was in the past a tradition among some craftsmen to incorporate a deliberate mistake as an act of humility so as not to vainly compete with the perfection of God’s creations, but we have no idea whether this was the intention in this case. We do know from an original photograph, however, that it has been that way since the organ was installed. We will be pleased to hear from readers of any theories on this mystery.