Kennedy Center organ gets tune-up

January 11, 1997


Staff Writer

As if it's not impressive enough that Irv Lawless can pull off a solo performance on the towering pipe organ at the Kennedy Center in Washington, D.C., he can break it down and bring it home when it needs an overhaul.

The Hagerstown organ builder, who ironically was the person who installed the massive, 4,000-pipe organ when the John F. Kennedy Center for the Performing Arts was opened 25 years ago, has been contracted to recondition the organ and make adjustments to its sound.

The project is part of a massive renovation of the Kennedy Center that is expected to cost millions of dollars.

The tedious task of disassembling the organ and hauling it to Lawless' shop on Bester Street began last August. Lawless and his staff at the Lawless-Johnson Organ Co. used only one rental truck to move the organ, and it took them about two weeks driving back and forth from Hagerstown to Washington to get the instrument to town.


The organ's walnut console, computer boards, cables, leather valves, and other parts are spread around Lawless' four-room shop. Some of the organ's larger pipes are at Eastern Organ Pipes Inc. on North Prospect Street, which is also involved in the restoration project.

For about the next eight months, Lawless and his five-man crew will be replacing worn out leather in the organ and making changes to its sound by increasing the size of the "mouth" in the base of its huge metal and wood pipes. The organ uses about 4,000 pipes, the largest of which are 32 feet high, and Lawless said he will make alterations to about 3,000 of them.

In music circles in recent years, it has been the trend to convert pipe organs from their typical baroque sound, which is characterized by highly embellished melodies, to a warmer, more romantic tone.

Frequent performer

In organ shop talk, makers talk of organs "going out of vogue tonally."

"The organ pendulum is always swinging. What we're doing now, someone will probably reverse it in 40 years," said Lawless, who is also a frequent performer on the organ at the Kennedy Center.

He plays for many of the graduation ceremonies that are held at the center each year, and does a Christmas Eve concert that is broadcast over WMAL radio in Washington.

While Lawless fine-tunes the organ in Hagerstown, workers will be tackling a costly renovation to the Kennedy Center that is expected to improve its acoustics. While well-known, the Kennedy Center has never been one to set the world on fire as far as design is concerned.

In some parts of the 2,749-seat auditorium, the music sounds fine. But in other spots, the sound loses quality, primarily when it comes to bass response, Lawless said. Even simple things posed problems at the center.

Lawless said people used to open doors in the center and scrape their hand on the inside wall as they were opening the door.

"You had major artists playing there and they were tearing their knuckles off," said Lawless.

Industry center

In a town that built much of its reputation on the organ industry, its fitting that that the Kennedy Center's organ is making a temporary home here. For more than 100 years, M.P. Moller Inc., reigned supreme in the industry, pumping out nearly 12,000 pipe organs in Hagerstown.

Lawless worked five years as a tonal manager for the North Prospect Street plant, and then formed his own company when Moller closed. Lawless represents a number of organ makers and experts who still live in town and have their own shops where they make and repair organs.

Although Moller is gone, Lawless said it is still possible to buy almost everything you need in Hagerstown to build an organ.

"I don't know of any other towns that have that," said Lawless.

The only thing missing from the story is that the Kennedy Center organ did not come from Hagerstown. It was built in early 1971 by the Aeolian-Skinner Organ Co. in Boston, Mass.

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