St. Mark's Lutheran Church Davenport, Iowa Casavant Frères

By Couture, Simon; Grassin, Didier et al. | The American Organist, March 2007 | Go to article overview
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St. Mark's Lutheran Church Davenport, Iowa Casavant Frères


Couture, Simon, Grassin, Didier, Poovey, Robert, Rochette, Jacquelin, The American Organist


MANY WILL find a known tune while reading the story of the new organ in St. Mark's Lutheran Church, a story made of patience, soul-searching, love of music, and endless dedication. Starting back in 1992, the church wished to replace its failing electronic instrument with a pipe organ. A committee was formed. It was the dream of some members that the church would once again have a pipe organ. For them, the electronic was supposed to have been a temporary solution (which lasted too long!).

Carroll Hanson, the enthusiastic Casavant representative who has witnessed the Midwest organ scene for the past 40 years, reflected on the project in these terms: Places of worship bring with them comfort from becoming and being familiar to those who regularly seek these sacred environs. When expanses of time have passed and what was once deemed tasteful and appropriate loses much of its power to incite the faithful to contemplation, supplication, and worship, the congregation must embark on one of its most challenging journeys, namely, refurbishing the worship space while not disturbing (or as little as possible) the most salient features of its worship mission. Over the past decade, I have been witness to this process at St. Mark's Evangelical Lutheran Church in Davenport, Iowa. Inasmuch as rough surfaces become smooth with long exposure to streams of water, the consideration of changes to a sanctuary benefits from ample time for ideas to become familiar and even acceptable.

A first draft for the organ scheme was produced-some 12 or 14 stops housed in a freestanding case, perhaps at the front right corner of the church, with the wish for a crisp mechanical action. From then, the too-often known story of formation of committees, financial search, pastor retirement, challenges of the true value of pipe vs. electronic unfolded during the following ten years. This maturation time allowed the church to investigate and understand the impact of the acoustics on its music and therefore on the liturgy. The arrival of the energetic pastor Paul Tweenten added a new dynamic to the project. A large renovation project was set up in which the architect, John Gere, AIA, retained the nave's outlines and favorable features while giving it a visual and acoustical warmth and texture that one could have scarcely imagined before. The choir and organ, which were tight for space at the front, were relocated at the back. The entire room was rethought and redecorated, bringing a new shiny life to the many stained glass windows.

Ellen Bowlin, the director of music, remembered: "The committee read and studied several resources as background for our search. We also visited several instruments, both electronic and pipe, until we decided that we wanted a pipe organ for its longevity and quality. We interviewed several pipe organ builders and visited more instruments, including several designed by Casavant. We were impressed with their quality of sound and workmanship." Ellen must have been also very pleased to deal with her friend Carroll who had introduced her to Robert, now her husband of a mere 35 years or so!

The vision of the organ was refined by the organ committee chaired by Erica Cunningham, and its scheme had grown. The instrument was to have 22 stops over two manuals. Relocating the organ to the hack of the church was not without challenges. The ceiling is fairly low, culminating at barely more than 20 feet and sloping down quickly towards the side. The back gallery with only twelve feet or so of headroom was a nonstarter. Moreover, a case in that elevated centered position would have completely covered the stained glass window. At church floor level, the organ would need to be placed on the side of the center main access. One possibility was to design an asymmetrical case that could use as much of the available height as possible at the rear wall. This would create a "fitted" casework emphasizing the lack of height. Instead we opted for a free-standing oak case placed at an angle, like a piece of furniture might be placed in a living room, thereby accentuating its tri-dimensional qualities.

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