Click photo to enlarge
First Methodist Sanctuary ca. 1915. organ restoration at First United Methodist Church.
Photo Gallery

A patchwork, with just half its pipes still playing, the century-old organ nonetheless lures crowds as diverse in color and background as they are in income to the heart of Salt Lake City.

Each Sunday, the eclectic community at First United Methodist Church is serenaded by this historic instrument -- the oldest pipe organ in the Mountain West.

The original air blower still bellows from the church's bowels, lifting the gold-painted pipes and the congregations' spirits to life. But many of the metal "ranks" are disconnected, converted to electric. The wind chests -- the organ's "lungs" -- need to be repaired and releathered. And the mishmash organ console is a mess.

Historical photos of the pipe organ at First United Methodist Church in Salt Lake City Thursday, June 3, 2010. The organ was built in 1905 and the church
Historical photos of the pipe organ at First United Methodist Church in Salt Lake City Thursday, June 3, 2010. The organ was built in 1905 and the church is raising money to help fix up the pipes. The church plans to replace the console, rebuild the wind chests and enlarge the organ from its existing 18 ranks to 42-46 ranks. (Chris Detrick / The Salt Lake Tribune)

So the worshippers on the corner of 200 South and 200 East have mounted a campaign to raise $300,000 -- some are doctors and lawyers who can write fat checks while others can afford only a quarter a week -- toward an organ restoration expected to take five years.

"It has sort of become a rallying point," says Becky Buxton, lay leader for the Methodist Church's Utah subdistrict. "Traditional mainstream Protestantism isn't as popular as it once was. But the idea of having the oldest working organ in the Intermountain area has brought people together."

Given the combination of African refugees, immigrant families and even some homeless people who comprise the parish, the fundraising task won't be easy.

"It's kind of the widow's mite," Buxton adds. "Frankly, a lot of our people have no money. We have street people who come here."

But already the church's mix, which includes Samoan, Tongan, Pakistani and openly gay regulars, has raised 10 percent of the total.

Constructed in 1906 by the George Kilgen & Sons Organ Co. of St. Louis, First United's organ shares the same builder as the instruments at St. Patrick's Cathedral and Carnegie Hall in New York.

The eye-popping row of pipes frames the altar, towering as tall as the church's ethereal stained-glass windows. The sanctuary, circling the altar, remains a rare Utah example of an auditorium-style church. A balcony shadows the main-floor pews -- giving the organ a unique acoustical setting.

"A theater in the round," smiles Scott Mills, the church's eager organist. As Mills' fingers glide between keyboards, sounding a range of reeds, flutes and pipes, his eyes light up.

"The whole thing will be pipes when we get done with it," he beams. "No electric."

Through the decades, the organ has seen a host of renovations, including supplemental pipes donated by Deseret Mortuary. In 1960, light birch and alder wood replaced the altar's dark mahogany, and the 1,430 organ pipes were covered with a screen. In 1987, the screen was removed and the instrument gradually restored. And, last year, the sanctuary was restained to the original dark mahogany.

During the planned restoration, church leaders hope to strip the gold paint from the pipes to show off the original etchings and embellishments. A church contractor is scouring old garages and warehouses to find other pioneer-era pipes to improve the organ's sound. And Mills hopes to add a fourth keyboard to the console, one shy of the five used in downtown's landmark Mormon Tabernacle.

Mills calls the tabernacle's organ "the greatest of all instruments." And, despite being renovated more often, it shares a bit of a bond with the lesser-known organ in the far-less-trafficked church a few blocks southeast.

Frank Asper -- organist with the Tabernacle from 1924 to 1965, the same time as Alexander Schreiner -- split time as the organist and choir director at First United from 1923 to 1937. The late LDS Church President Spencer W. Kimball once spoke at the mission-style, 104-year-old worship house. And, on Sunday, the Methodist edifice will host Tabernacle organist Linda Margetts as the guest musician at an organ recital.

Now that 10 percent has been raised, church officials will start soliciting donations from businesses and philanthropic groups. Organ restoration is slated to begin in May and continue through the summer of 2015. The piecemeal project includes adding a new console with historic appointments and a division of pipes at the back of the balcony to be mounted horizontally toward the ceiling dome.

The scope of the renovation -- and the generosity of the parishioners -- seems to be the only thing that gives Mills pause. In the church basement, he recalls when 13-year-old Erik Martin handed him a pledge to pay a quarter a week. As Mills grabs the piece of paper off the corkboard, his eyes well and his voice quivers -- a little like one of his aging organ pipes.

"It's just so nice," he manages.

djensen@sltrib.com

Organ recital series

"A Wesleyan Sermon" is a service on the second and fourth Sundays of each month at First United Methodist Church, 203 S. 200 East, featuring organ music, hymns and a short sermon reading. Donations toward the organ restoration are welcome at the 5:30 p.m. service. The church welcomes Mormon Tabernacle organist Linda Margetts on Sunday.