“There’s a satisfaction in knowing that our work will survive us by generations. That’s something that makes the hair on the back of my neck stand up.”

Pipe organ conservator Jeff Weiler, 62, founded what became JL Weiler, Inc. in 1983. The company’s workshop near 18th and Canal employs ten people, who work to restore, install, repair, and maintain pipe organs in churches, theaters, concert halls, and educational institutions. Until the industrial revolution—and arguably until the development of the telephone relay in the late 19th century—these instruments were the most complex machines devised by humans. Even the most modest pipe organ is a huge piece of musical technology, extending far beyond the console with its keyboards; the largest can have tens of thousands of pipes and weigh 150 tons or more. 

JL Weiler’s smallest projects last 12 months or so and cost a few hundred thousand dollars; the biggest, most involved jobs often take three to five years and run to $1 million or more. Locally the company has worked on the organs at Symphony Center, Bond Chapel, and Saint John Cantius Church, among many others. It’s also restored the instrument at the State Theatre in Sydney, Australia, and is just beginning work at the Peking Union Medical College in Beijing, China. Other gigs have taken JL Weiler to Memphis, Tennessee; St. Gallen, Switzerland; and Kuala Lumpur, Malaysia. The company is also rebuilding the organ console from Chicago’s Portage Theater, to be installed in the Egyptian Theatre in DeKalb. The rest of the Egyptian’s instrument—pipes, blower, relays—will come from the Rialto in Washington, D.C., demolished in 1940. Much of JL Weiler’s work is devoted to extending the longevity of such classic theater organs, using materials and techniques employed during their heyday a century ago.

As told to Philip Montoro

I grew up on a farm in Iowa. My mother was an organist, so I had exposure to the two pipe organs in the little central Iowa town in which I was reared, and I was just captivated by the mechanism and the sound. That provided a pretty all-consuming interest from the time that I was four years old.

At JL Weiler our work ultimately boils down to three things: thanks, respect, and love. We think about the people who crafted these instruments, maybe 100 years ago, maybe 150 years ago. And we see the evidence of their work, we see the marks of their tools. We also think about the people who have played these instruments. We think about the occasions at which these instruments were played, some of them very important. We think about the positions that many of these instruments occupy on the international cultural stage. And we are humbled by that. 

What that philosophy means is that for the instruments in our care and the instruments that we restore, the work is guided by the original. We do not wish to leave tracks. We at all times wish to avoid what I call the “canine instinct.” If you have a particular instrument that has existed in a specific way for perhaps 90 years, who are we to change it? Why would we think that we know more than the people who created it? To be completely vulgar, we don’t want to piss on it! Unfortunately, there are those who do. 

Jeff Weiler discusses the Chicago Symphony Orchestra’s pipe organ and his company’s role in maintaining it.

Jobs vary from a full and complete historically informed restoration on the one hand to, at the other hand, simple, regular tuning and maintenance. We also specialize in conserving the original tonalities of these instruments. Our work as restorers is not necessarily clean-cut and straightforward, because many times we’re called up to reverse changes that occurred in the history of the instrument because their owners wish to recapture something that was lost.

Pipe organs use many miles of wire. These cables are part of a switch relay, a sort of electropneumatic computer. Credit: Matthew Gilson for Chicago Reader

We have a colloquial term in our business for instruments that have been visited. And when I say “visited,” I am speaking in italics. That’s our way of identifying intrusive changes. “Nuking” means the introduction of modern technology, typically solid-state control systems. This is the means by which the organ console communicates with the actual organ. Very often, the instruments we work on use electropneumatic relays—an electropneumatic binary computer. Those are the things that people throw away! It’s easier and cheaper to make that equipment obsolete, in the eyes of many. So you might have a roomful of electropneumatic machinery that is quite easily replaced by a couple of shoeboxes full of integrated circuits.

We never wish to criticize, because the events may have occurred decades ago—who are we to feel that we can fully understand all of the conditions that went into making revisions to important instruments? Hindsight affords us the opportunity of perspective. But sometimes the answer is clear that in order to preserve an instrument, it needs to be returned to a previous state. When we have an opportunity to reverse those changes, that is “denuking.” 

We replicate equipment or we restore vintage components. The practical side of all that is, the original equipment was created with its eventual restoration in mind. The artisans who crafted all of these parts knew that in 60, 70, 80, 90, 100 years we could come along after them. These instruments can be restored. When a foreign technology is introduced, that concept goes out the window. The modern equipment can’t be repaired—it must be replaced. 

This 90-year-old machine, restored by JL Weiler, braids a new textile covering over modern cables to give them an appearance consistent with the vintage cables they replace. Credit: Matthew Gilson for Chicago Reader

Our project recently completed in Sydney, Australia—when I first evaluated that instrument, what I found was utter chaos. Parts had been dismantled and strewn around, parts were missing, parts had been very poorly rebuilt, parts had been damaged by the ingress of water. And that is about as difficult a restoration as we’ve ever undertaken. 

The console of the organ had been radically altered. When the consultant asked what I thought, I was able to speak fairly frankly in a private conversation, and I said, “Well, it looks like the uncovered corpse at the scene of a horrific accident.” They seized upon that, and they wanted to make their console look exactly as it did in 1928. The National Trust of Australia and heritage authorities for New South Wales as well as the City of Sydney considered the instrument to be intrinsic to the cultural history of Australia. So all of the extra effort was warranted.

“We restore vintage hardware as a part of our work,” says Jeff Weiler. “The cut threads are superior to modern examples and the look is right.” The company refinishes antique screws by blasting them with tiny glass beads driven by compressed air and then coating them in diluted lacquer to prevent tarnishing. Credit: Matthew Gilson for Chicago Reader

Coming into our lobby, you’re greeted by a gold art deco Wurlitzer pipe organ console. The console was originally built in 1930 and installed with all its constituent pipes and components in the Paramount Theatre in Nashville, Tennessee. That console was discovered in a barn in Evansville, Indiana, sitting uncovered under a leaky roof. Because of its rarity, we thought it would make a very interesting restoration project—the console itself had to be reduced basically to a flat pile of lumber and bags of rusty screws. 

This restored organ console, from the Wurlitzer Opus 2132 that was originally installed at the Paramount Theatre in Nashville, Tennessee, in 1930, occupies the lobby at JL Weiler, Inc. Credit: Matthew Gilson for Chicago Reader

Part of our work involves getting in the minds of those who came before us, figuring out how they did things. In this case, we learned about gesso finishes. It gave us an appreciation for the conservation of art finishes—what makes something look authentic, and how can we re-create it when we have to? And when it no longer exists, reintroduce it? 

That console does have importance to the work we do in the shop, because we’re able to move it into our assembly room and connect it up to sections of other organs for testing purposes. And I just think it’s beautiful—I like to look at it!

What happens when you depress a key is an incredible synthesis of electrical engineering, pneumatic engineering, and artistry. You are harnessing electricity, you’re harnessing wind, as we call it (in pipe organs, we don’t say “pressurized air,” we say “wind”), in a very efficient way. This was cutting-edge technology 100 years ago, and it’s never really been surpassed. So with a 12-volt direct-current contact being made, you are able to put tons of mechanism in action. It’s simple principles being applied to colossal machinery, with the end result being spectacular music making. 

These wooden jigs and fixtures allow pipe organ conservators to quickly and accurately reproduce common parts. Credit: Matthew Gilson for Chicago Reader

You’re creating music with the wind because it’s entering the pipes, but the means by which all of this happens, what we call the action, is really quite beautiful. Because you have basically simple mechanisms, when distilled down I think your mind can get around all of that quite readily—but what happens in a large instrument can be mind-boggling, because you have simple mechanisms that are multiplied thousands and thousands of times. 

These instruments are very mysterious to many people, and that’s part of their charm. So much of what is happening mechanically and electrically is remote. Sometimes they see an organist seated before the console, which they think is the organ—that must be all there is to it. They rarely understand that what they’re seeing is in fact the smallest part. 

The combination action in the console—whereby you can preselect certain groups of stops, and when you press a piston they go to that setting automatically—it’s through electropneumatic means that that is achieved. A small leather-covered bellows, by being allowed to exhaust to atmosphere and collapse, could make a pipe play; it could activate a stop and make it move on the console; it could close multiple contact switches, multiple contact relays; it could move hundreds of pounds of lumber in order to make the instrument more expressive, to make it louder or softer. Some of these bellows could be seven-eighths of an inch by an inch—they can be very small. Yet they can achieve all these results. 

Small leather bellows, called expression actions, actuate wooden swell shutters fitted to the openings of organ chambers to control the volume of sound that reaches the audience. These are part of a 1925 Wurlitzer Opus 1097 that JL Weiler is installing at the Oriental Theatre in Milwaukee, the last remaining unaltered Style 260 Wurlitzer. Credit: Matthew Gilson for Chicago Reader

The fact that we are restoring all of these mechanisms, and we go to the extremes that we do in order to restore them in the manner of the original, is to allow others to come after us and do the same thing over again. Instruments that have been restored and conserved in this manner, all that will be required for their future restoration can be found in a barnyard: animal hides, the leather, and the animal collagen that we use for an adhesive, that comes from rendered hides and bones. 

As long as those things exist, these instruments have virtually an unlimited lifespan. The process of restoration is involved, it’s labor intensive, it’s expensive, but it also resets the hands of the clock. When you think about this work needing to be done perhaps every 75 years, it’s not really that expensive at all. You can kind of amortize that, if you will. Obsolescence is introduced with modern materials.

Metal organ pipes await restoration Credit: Matthew Gilson for Chicago Reader

Predecessors of the instrument that we now regard as the pipe organ go back to antiquity. We can find examples of pipe organs that are 400 years old that we would be very comfortable with—we would recognize them, we would know how they worked, how they played. Everything is done mechanically. There are direct mechanical linkages from the keys to the wind chest upon which the pipes stand. 

There are organs like that—mechanical-action organs—being built today. Those typically aren’t the ones we’re called upon to restore, but there is a great tradition in organ building where everything is done mechanically. 

This milling machine is named after JL Weiler’s honorary shop matron, the late Luella Wickham, who began playing pipe organs at age 14 in 1906. Credit: Matthew Gilson for Chicago Reader

Prior to the widespread use of electricity, big organs required a group of men to “raise the wind.” They were pumping bellows, very often in a room adjacent to the organ. Because their work was very important any time the instrument had to be played, they became organized in some cases, and you had these organ blowers’ guilds. For little organs in country parishes, the wind could be raised by one boy, and he would be called a “bellows boy.” Big organs, it may take six or eight men, and it was hard work. They were huge, and you’d be operating big levers. The bellows were called feeders, and might be six feet by eight feet—it’s a tremendous amount of cubic feet per minute. Sometimes you’re using your arms, sometimes you’re using your feet—there would often be a rail above you to steady yourself, and you were using your body weight.

Then other things like steam were used to operate the bellows. Sometimes gasoline engines and, in this country, water engines were used to operate the bellows. Beginning before the turn of the last century, electric motors were fixed to bellows. And then finally, turbine-style blowers, which are still used today.

Several stops on the shop’s 1926 Wurlitzer Opus 1414 Credit: Matthew Gilson for Chicago Reader

We deal with church organs, we deal with concert hall organs, we deal with pipe organs in educational institutions and those in theaters. The theater organ is by far the most recent innovation in organ building. The period of about 1910 to 1930, there was so much innovation, and there’s been relatively none since. We’ve been waiting for over 100 years for something else to happen, and it really hasn’t—there’s been no significant development. 

Theater organs were created as the voice of the silent film. The intention was to provide the resources of an entire orchestra to a single performer. These instruments were all about entertainment. They’re about “Hooray for Hollywood,” not “A Mighty Fortress.”

The theater organ is all about multum in parvo—much from little. Even the largest theater organ is comparatively small when considered alongside its brothers in the church or in the concert hall. But through their unique mechanism, they are able to produce kaleidoscopic effects that cannot be produced by these other instruments. 

The marimba harp from the Wurlitzer Opus 1097 destined for the Oriental Theatre in Milwaukee Credit: Matthew Gilson for Chicago Reader

It’s a distinctly American musical instrument—they were created here, initially. They’re intertwined with art and music and theater and cinema and showmanship—many of the players back in the day were revered like rock stars. They were paid incredible amounts of money, and they were a tremendous draw. 

This was a time when the public at large loved the organ as a musical instrument. These were titans of tone—instruments that were felt as much as heard. There was something very special about going to a movie palace and seeing a silent film with 2,000 other people, accompanied by a musical instrument that could move you in such profound emotional ways. So in that sense, I was just born too late.

Theater organs sound distinctly different. They embody a complete orchestra—they include very specific orchestral voices. There are pipes that sound like violins. There are pipes that sound like flutes. There are pipes that sound like clarinets, oboes. And in addition, there are actual percussion instruments that are playable from the console—glockenspiels, xylophones, marimba harps, celestas, and traps, such as snare drums, bass drums, cymbals, tambourines, castanets, triangles. 

Like most theater organs, the 1926 Wurlitzer Opus 1414 at JL Weiler can create many sound effects to accompany silent films—including a bird call that uses a water-filled whistle. Credit: Matthew Gilson for Chicago Reader

And then there are effects built into these instruments specifically for the accompaniment of silent film: an ocean surf effect, bird whistles, Klaxon automobile horns, doorbells, horses’ hooves, boat whistles, it goes on and on. And all of these things are actuated through harnessing wind and low voltage direct-current electricity, just like everything else. They’re sophisticated, they were the last word, and they remain the last word.

The Chicago Theatre just last month celebrated its centenary. The Chicago Theatre is still home to a Wurlitzer organ—in fact, it’s the oldest original-installation Wurlitzer organ extant. Sadly, it is in poor condition. It needs a full restoration. It’s a cultural icon.

The history of Chicago and these instruments, the history of the movie palace—these are all inexorably intertwined. Famous musicians came here to play these instruments at theaters like the Chicago, the Granada, the Marbro, the Paradise. Most of these places, long gone. The Oriental. They would have organ concerts at the beginning of the day.

A pipe organ’s union board is a junction for systematically terminating hundreds (or thousands) of electrical connections; this one is being rewired, with approximately 3,800 such connections to be made. Credit: Matthew Gilson for Chicago Reader

The leading builder of theater organs, Wurlitzer, was by far preeminent. They’re basically the creators of the theater organ as we know it today, through incorporating the work of Robert Hope-Jones. What he was able to create has had a lasting effect on organ building. 

It was an incredible time in motion picture exhibition, it was an incredible time in cinema history, and it’s certainly something to be celebrated and venerated. But once movies learned to talk in 1927, you didn’t need the theater organist anymore—and you certainly didn’t need one on the payroll. Many were kept on because they were a draw in and of themselves—they were an added attraction, and they were bringing people in. The Chicago Theatre continued using its organ up until about World War II or so. 

A reminder for the staff Credit: Matthew Gilson for Chicago Reader

The Chicago was what was called a “presentation house,” where you would have a film, but you’d also have a band on the stage and singers, maybe, and the pipe organ. That happened at a number of places throughout the United States—they all had vaudeville stages. They were built primarily to exhibit motion pictures, but of course part of that whole experience involved live entertainment. You would have an orchestra in the pit or onstage, you would have acts of vaudeville, and then there would be the organ and the silent screen. All for 35 cents. We have nothing like that today.

Probably the last, greatest example was at Radio City Music Hall, where they would have lavish stage productions in association with a motion picture. And a big part of that was their mighty Wurlitzer pipe organ, which they advertised—there were proud of it.

The application today is much more limited—that we understand. You don’t need to have a pipe organ in a theater anymore. It is a former fixture of a bygone age. But that doesn’t mean that they don’t have value. Where they do exist, there’s an opportunity to make them a feature, to celebrate them, to celebrate the history. People do that—and those are our customers. 

The Wurlitzer console and switch relay from Chicago’s Portage Theater await restoration for installation at the Egyptian Theatre in DeKalb. Credit: Matthew Gilson for Chicago Reader

In the church, there’s a growing interest in getting back to what might be termed “traditional church music,” and the centerpiece of any traditional church music program is a fine pipe organ. So there will always be users and groups associated with these instruments. 

There’s a satisfaction in knowing that our work will survive us by generations. That’s something that makes the hair on the back of my neck stand up. I’m so intrigued with the timelessness of these instruments. They’re so beautifully crafted, and it’s an honor—we’re grateful for the opportunity to play a role in their welfare.

Philip Montoro

Philip Montoro has been an editorial employee of the Reader since 1996 and its music editor since 2004. Pieces he has edited have appeared in Da Capo’s annual Best Music Writing anthologies in 2005, 2006, 2007, 2008, 2010, and 2011. He shared two Lisagor Awards in 2019 for a story on gospel pioneer Lou Della Evans-Reid, and he’s also split two national awards from the Association of Alternative Newsmedia: one for multimedia in 2019 for his work on the TRiiBE collaboration the Block Beat, and one in in 2020 for editing the music writing of Reader staffer Leor Galil. Philip has played scrap metal in Lozenge, drummed with the Disasters, the Afflictions, and Brilliant Pebbles, and sung for the White Outs. He wrote the column Beer and Metal from 2012 till 2015, and hopes to do so again one day. You can also follow him on Twitter.