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ISSUE 119 VOL 13 PUBLISHED 3/10/2006

There's no place like Boe

By Emelie Heltsley
News Editor

Friday, March 10, 2006

Sights, sounds and smells of construction greet students who walk through the hallway outside Boe Chapel, inciting curiosity and excitement within the St. Olaf community. Current plans for Boe involve moving the choir risers and organ to the front of the chapel, and frame the stained glass window with organ pipes. A thrust platform for the altar table will extend further out into the congregation, with additional seating on the sides of the platform.

Popular myth blames September’s lightning strike for the new organ and the subsequent renovations. In reality, the project has been in the works for years, and was only financially feasible after receiving $2 million from last year’s sale of St. Olaf’s radio station, WCAL.

"The organ was dying," said John Ferguson, Elliot and Klara Stockdal Johnson professor of organ and church music, explaining that the lightning strike simply accelerated the removal of the old organ, and that the new organ precipitated the additional renovations. Boe’s organ, an instrument with an average life-span of 25 years, was dedicated in September 1960, over 45 years ago.

"We had a commitment to replace the organ before the lightning strike," Ferguson said.

Since its initial construction in the mid-1950s, Boe has seen no major renovations, something Ferguson calls "pretty unusual" for most churches built during that time. Boe was first used for worship in October 1953, and the chapel was dedicated in June 1954.

College Pastor Bruce Benson said that, during the first worship service in Boe, many of those gathered left the building because the sound was of such poor quality.

"It was such an acoustically terrible place, everyone moved out," he said. "It was so bad, they went back to the gymnasium."

Plans to improve the aesthetic and acoustic nature of the chapel have been proposed for over 30 years. When Benson became college pastor in 1981, he "inherited" a file called "Chapel Renovations" from his predecessor. In the file were proposed plans from years past, letters from acoustic engineers offering suggestions for optimizing the space and even student projects based on what "could happen" in Boe.

Remodeling has been a long time coming, according to both Ferguson and Benson, as several features of the chapel do not work, are not practical, or are just old. The light dimmers broke in the 70s and were never fixed. To this day, maintenance crews must rent a cherry-picker to change a light bulb. Water leaks in the back of Boe caused great damage to the old organ, and the original front pulpit is never used. Acoustically, there are "dead spots" in the chapel where congregation members cannot hear music or speaking.

"The chapel has slowly and gradually become rather shabby," Ferguson said.

Why then, has the chapel of a "College of the Church" been "allowed" to gradually disintegrate?

"The chapel is everybody’s and nobody’s," Ferguson said. "There isn’t a group of people championing its cause."

Both Ferguson and Benson suggested that, because what happens inside Boe is of such high quality and often profoundly moving, the limitations of the space are more easily ignored.

"The music you hear stirs and inspires you,” said Benson. “You don’t care if the building doesn’t.”

After Boe was hit by lightning, however, the remodeling plan, precipitated by the urgent need for a new organ, became more urgent.

"As a college of the church, the college’s church cannot not have an organ," Ferguson said.

The Holtkamp Organ Company of Cleveland, Ohio, one of the oldest and most respected American organ manufacturers, is currently building the new organ. Because the majority of the old organ's problems were with its mechanical components, Holtkamp is able to reuse about two-thirds of the original pipes, the blower and the console. Re-using these materials saved between $100,000 and $150,000 of the $1.5 million project. Before installation, however, the organ’s new home, in the chancel of Boe, must be prepared.

"The work going on right now is a complete reshaping of the chancel to enable it to house organ and choirs and better project their sound into the church," Ferguson said.

When the revision of the chancel is complete, the re-configured walls and ceiling will be thicker and harder, and, with the base of the organ, will act as a shell for the choir. The organ pipes will frame, not obscure, the large stained glass window.

The timeline for the project is relatively set. The preparations for the new organ, as well as the thrust platform on which the altar table will stand, are set to be completed in May. The pipes for the new organ will begin arriving in mid-June, and will be installed during July and August. The tuning of the pipes will occur in the fall, and construction of the front chancel and the new organ should be completed by November.

The choir and organ will move to the front of Boe for several reasons. First, unlike the back of the chapel, the chancel will not leak or be susceptible to water damage, and will be a safer place to house the organ. Second, as Ferguson explained, the repertoire of music for congregational song is becoming more diverse and global.

"Much global song needs to be led visually," Ferguson said.

Finally, there is no place on campus to perform major works that involve the organ with the instrumentalists and choral groups. Because the thrust stage will be expandable to accommodate instrumental groups, Boe will be able to house an orchestra or band with a standing choir of 250 singers.

Not everything that is desired may be completed, however.

"The only thing the college is committed to right now is the organ, the chancel [renovations] and the platform," Ferguson said.

After a meeting last week, Benson explained that the college is at a "budget crossroads." While the organ, the space under the chancel and the platform are all financially taken care of, additional improvements to the chapel are still "up in the air," according to both Benson and Ferguson. These improvements include ceiling work to make the space more acoustically fit for congregational song, as well as musical performances.

"Proportionally, it is not much more," Benson said about the additional costs. "But it is still more."

Ferguson emphasized that the new organ will not be overpowering or obnoxiously loud.

"We were prudent and responsible in designing an instrument," he said. "It is not a monument. It is a servant."

Ferguson said that the organ should invite the congregation to sing, accompany the choirs colorfully, act as a companion to bands and orchestras, and work well for organ repertoire. In size (total pipes), the new organ will be smaller than the old one, but will be more colorful.

As construction will not be completed until late fall, students can watch Boe change before their eyes.

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