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Our Rich History: Historic Matthias Schwab organ rescued from wrecking ball one really hot summer


By Stephen Enzweiler
Special to NKyTribune

(Part one of a two-part series on the musical legacy of the Historic Matthias Schwab organ)

On a hot, sweltering August afternoon in 1970, pedestrians and vehicles moving down 12th Street in Covington became witness to a peculiar sight. Along the sidewalks they beheld schoolboys and young men hurrying through the dense summer heat carrying an assortment of strange objects. Their arms and clothing were covered in soot and grime, faces darkened with smudges, and in their hands, crammed into boxes, in buckets, thrown over shoulders and jammed under arms, they lugged long, strange-looking pipes, boxes filled with metal rods, strange wire mechanisms, buckles, brackets, screws, nuts and bolts.

There were long, odd-shaped wooden box-like things, quaintly carved bits of furniture and ornate blocks of intricately carved wood gleaming in the sunlight. There were others, too, who transported more massive objects along 12th Street like large, bulky cabinets, pedals, keyboards, all moving in a solemn hurry. No one knew at the time that this procession of curiosities was to one day alter the musical landscape of Northern Kentucky.

A rare photo of Bob Schaffer playing the Schwab organ in St. Joseph’s Church before it was rescued. Archives of the Diocese of Covington.

The odd collection of parts they carried came from a single musical instrument, but they were not from any ordinary musical instrument. They all were taken from the Historic Matthias Schwab pipe organ that had resided in St. Joseph Catholic Church at the corner of 12th and Greenup Streets since 1859.

The boys who carried many of the smaller parts were volunteers from the Cathedral Basilica’s Bishop’s Choir, with a few of the men choir members hauling the larger pieces. This curious procession went on every day for much of July and August. At the end of the day, volunteers often came away looking much like a blackened coal miner – the result of accumulated candle and incense grime and environmental sediment that had built up on every surface of the pipe organ for 111 years. For most of them, it was a badge of pride to be so dirty.

Matthias Schwab had been one of the most prominent master organ builders of 19th century America. Trained in Germany before emigrating to America in 1830, Schwab was just 23 when he came to Cincinnati in 1831 and established his workshop at the corner of Sycamore and William Streets in Cincinnati (now Sycamore and Schiller). Within only a few years, his masterfully crafted pipe organs were in high demand all over the eastern United States. Orders poured in from Baltimore, New Orleans, St. Louis, Milwaukee, and Baton Rouge. According to an 1844 article in the Daily Cincinnatian, Schwab already had by then a national reputation and was considered “one of the most successful manufacturers of the organ in the Western country.”

St Joseph Church as seen from 12th Street. Built in 1859, it was located at the corner of 12th and Greenup Streets in Covington. It fell under the wrecking ball in autumn 1970. Courtesy of Kenton County Public Library.

By most measures, the Historic Schwab pipe organ should not exist today. The story of its rescue began in the spring of 1970, when Covington’s Bishop Richard H. Ackerman announced that St Joseph’s Church on 12th Street would close and the building would be razed. Years of declining parish membership made it a necessary decision. A final pontifical Mass was planned for July 5th, after which the wrecking crews would move in.

On the Sunday preceding the last Mass, a concert of choral and organ music featuring the Historic Schwab organ was presented by the Bishop’s Choir of the Cathedral Basilica and its organists, Robert “Bob” and Rita Schaffer. It was during the preparations for this final concert that the Schaffers realized the Schwab organ’s plight and were inspired to try and rescue it in its entirety if they could.

Bob Schaffer approached Rev. Ulric Thaner O.S.B., the pastor of St. Joseph Church, and asked what the plans were for the organ. He no doubt anticipated it might be moved and put to good use somewhere else. But Thaner told him there were no plans for it. . .that it was slated to come down with the wrecking ball. The mere thought of an irreplaceable piece of local history perishing in a pile of rubble disturbed Schaffer. So, he asked the priest if he could salvage it himself.

Interior of the Historic Schwab pipe organ shows what a tracker action looks like. Despite the somewhat primitive arrangement, tracker action, if constructed properly, is still the preferred action by many modern organists. Photo by Stephen Enzweiler.

Fr. Thaner agreed, and that set into motion a grass roots effort to recruit willing volunteers ready to help take it apart and move it. But just what he would do with it once he had it, Bob Schaffer still had no idea. According to his son, Greg Schaffer, his father devised a plan which at first was meant only to save it from destruction without any thought of finding a home for it. “Dad pretty much spearheaded saving the Schwab organ,” he remembered. “After the last Mass, we were under the gun to get it out of there.”

Bob Schaffer first encountered the Historic Schwab pipe organ in the 1960’s, when he was filling in as part-time organist at St. Joseph Church. Accustomed to playing the more modern Wicks organ at Covington’s Cathedral, he began to note with increasing appreciation how the century-old instrument produced a much finer quality of sound and brilliance than modern instruments he played. Part of the reason for this is sound due to it being a manual ‘tracker’ organ. Tracker organs operate by a system of mechanical connections consisting of levers, wires, and pulleys from the keyboard to the pipe chests, all powered by air pressure produced by hand-pumped bellows.

Tracker action was the only way to construct pipe organs before the advent of electricity. Although tacker organs are more cumbersome and require more physical effort to play, they often produce a more refined sound than modern organs. Despite the somewhat primitive arrangement, tracker action, if constructed properly, is still the preferred action by many modern organists. This was the instrument Bob Schaffer came to know and love during his time filling in at St. Joseph’s.

Another view of the interior tracker mechanism showing wooden linkage. Chalk marks made by carpenter and Cathedral parishioner Charles Haegele to number the wooden parts can still be seen. Photo by Stephen Enzweiler

The final Mass at St. Joseph was celebrated on July 5th and the church closed. Only one obstacle remained before demolition of the building could commence. Interred on the property were the remains of Rev. Aegidius O.S.B., which had to be removed from its crypt and returned to St. Vincent Archabbey in Latrobe, Pennsylvania. That would take time. Schaffer knew he had at least four weeks, maybe longer, before the transfer of the priest’s body were complete and the wrecking ball could begin its work.

But Bob Schaffer had a problem: he still had no idea what to do with it once he salvaged it. Where would he put all the hundreds of pieces of this massive musical instrument? In a leap of faith, he approached Rev. John Goeke, Administrator of the Cathedral Basilica, who happily gave him permission to store the dissembled pipe organ in its basement. With permissions in place, Bob Schaffer began the arduous task of dismantling a piece of history. The clock was now ticking.

Painstakingly disassembling and moving a massive and complex structure like the Historic Schwab pipe organ was a formidable problem. But it was solved by the small army of volunteers who generously responded to Schaffer’s requests for help. The needed skills of carpenter and Cathedral parishioner, Charles Haegele, were used to number each piece of casework and take it apart in an orderly fashion. Fr. Goeke arranged for vehicles to transport the larger components. Riggers from the Cincinnati Building Trades Union, under the guidance of Leonard “Skip” Fangman (a neighbor of the Schaffers), transported the console, wind chests and air reservoir.

Boys from the Bishop’s Choir hand-carried the smaller, light-weight components, such as ranks of pipes and the inner mechanical tracker mechanisms, and men from the choir carried the larger components. The move itself took nearly a month to complete with temperatures often soaring into the 90’s. Drivers and pedestrians watched as they emerged one after the other from the empty shell of the abandoned church and moved slowly through the heat toward the Cathedral.

Two of the three towers containing ranks of pipes. Photo by Stephen Enzweiler.

“It was a really hot summer,” Greg Schaffer recalled recently. “I was just twelve then, and I carried some of the pipes under my arms. At the end of a day, I looked down and saw my hands and arms just black from 111 years of smoke soot and grime on the pipes that rubbed off on me. But the thing I remember most was the heat.”

Perhaps it was destiny that led Bob Schaffer to rescue the Matthias Schwab organ. He had always been musical and was a master organist and composer of sacred music. A graduate of the Cincinnati Conservatory of Music, he played piano and trombone in the 87th Infantry Division during WWII. After the war, he earned a master’s degree in musicology at New York University and did postgraduate work in composition with American pioneer Henry Cowell at Columbia University. In 1949, he was appointed organist and accompanist at St. Mary Cathedral, where he subsequently organized the Bishop’s Choir. He presided over a musical family that included his wife Rita, his late son Mark, son Greg and daughter Becky, all of whom have become accomplished organists and musicians in their own right.

By late August 1970, the last piece from the Historic Schwab pipe organ had been taken away. The old gallery where it stood for more than a century was now an empty memory. The wrecking crews came early that fall and made quick work of the old church building, taking down with it two large, priceless frescoes by noted Covington artist Johann Schmitt and three ornate, hand-carved altars.

For his part, Bob Schaffer felt a deep sense of satisfaction that he had played a role in saving a valuable piece of history. But as 1970 turned to 1971, he still had no idea what he was going to do with it. Yet for the moment, he had become its caretaker, its guardian, the protector of its voice from the distant past, a voice that now waited patiently in the dark recesses of a Cathedral basement for that future time when it might be given life again and rise to a new musical life.

Stephen Enzweiler is a writer and journalist. He has been a columnist for the Kentucky Enquirer, the Oxford Citizen, and was a senior editor at Y’all Magazine. He is the author of “Oxford in the Civil War: Battle for a Vanquished Land (2010).

The Schwab’s keyboard, still with the original ivory keys. On each side are ‘drawknobs’ used by the organist to “mix” the various ranks of pipes. Photo by Stephen Enzweiler.

Next: Part Two — What happened to the Schwab?


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2 Comments

  1. Gerry Blenke says:

    I remember the organ very well. I went to school at St. Joe’s. I was on the school choir and Joe Stern was the organist. Stood right by the console as he played. I linked seeing the lower keyboard coupled to the upper keyboard at the end of Mass when he played the recessions music. I became facilitated with organ music due to that experience. I have collected quite a few Ads and vinyls. Great article. Glad to see it at the Cathedral. Uh

  2. James Ott says:

    There is a story that Frank Duveneck inscribed his initials, F D, on the side of the organ. He was an altar boy at the church and later he painted Stations of the Cross, which I saw many years ago when reporting for the Cincinnati Enquirer. I tell a bit of this story in The Greatest Brush, a bio of Duveneck, published by Branden Books of Boston.

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