When any kind of business is in existence for 121 years and much of its competition has fallen by the wayside, it must be doing something right. And, remarkably, when its product is made much like it was more than a century ago, it almost defies logic. But that is the story of Austin Organs Inc. of Hartford, Conn., which was founded in 1889 and is the builder of some of the most famous organs in the world.
Except for the addition of some electrical work, Austin Organs continues to have two basic components: the wooden elements that are built in the cabinet shop and the pipes, which are built in the pipe shop. A visit to the old brick building that houses the shop is a step back in time.
Owner: Michael Fazio (since 2005)
Shop size: 50,000 sq. ft.
The woodworking factor: “The role of the cabinet shop here is to manufacture the components for the console and components for the organ casework. That is completely different from the chest room, which manufactures the organ’s wind chests and the bellows and everything else that goes into the organ.”
"Our most popular instruments are the concert hall instruments," says Michael Fazio, Austin Organs' president and tonal director. "Austin organs were some of the first concert hall instruments in this country. Portland Municipal Hall up in Maine is one of the leading instruments. Then there are a couple of sisters out on the West Coast; one that is played and installed in an outdoor theater at Balboa Park in San Diego - the Spreckels Organ - which was built for the Panama-California Exposition in 1914.
"In that era there were three organs built that are still three of the larger organs in the country. There's Balboa Park, the San Francisco Exhibition organ that has close to 10,000 pipes in it and was built in close to six months, and there was a lesser-known instrument that was installed in a Masonic Lodge in Chicago, which is not playing any longer. Those were all built around the same year, but that is when the company had over 100 employees."
Consistency is the key
An Austin organ consists of three entities: work done by the cabinet shop, the pipe shop and an electrical aspect. The role of the cabinet shop is to manufacture the components for the console and components for the organ casework. There is also work constructed from the chest room, which manufactures the organ's wind chests and bellows. Poplar is used for structural components and basswood is used for actions.
When Fazio was asked if Austin organs are basically made the way they were 100 years ago, he replied "more or less."
"One of the things that is a hallmark of the Austin name and probably one of the reasons we remain on the map is that there is a consistency. People will call us from across the country and say, 'I have an organ from 1937. Can I still get parts for it?' We consider 1937 the modern design. The old design goes back to the turn of the century and we have adaptors that will allow modern actions to go into the older design. Our instruments are consistent from year to year and that is really important."
A trend setter
The company has a storied history. According to the company's website, "Born in England in 1869, John Turnell Austin enjoyed a childhood of choral singing and amateur organ building with his father. He immigrated to America in 1889 to try his hand at organ building. In 1893, he developed the revolutionary Universal Air Chest with its valve mechanism on the ceiling, allowing ready access for maintenance and adjustment. Compared to the troubling complexities of some primitive electric actions, the Universal Air Chest was a marvel of simplicity and reliability. In 1889, John Austin settled his own company in Hartford, eventually with his brother Basil as partner."
Fazio picks up the story by saying, "Austin has always been kind of middle of the road, bucking the trends in the industry, many of them tonal. Back in the '40s and '50s there was a move to make organs that were more attuned for theater use. We refer to it as the Baroque revival. Even back in the '20s, before the talkies, the organ was the replacement for the orchestra.
"Austin has been able to change to meet the needs. Back at the turn of the century we had well over 100 employees. In 1935, [during the Great Depression], Austin had work on the books, but scaled back and moved into this building. The company started growing again right before World War II. At that time they converted over and were doing some production for the wartime effort. The commonly held belief is that the company made glider wings, but I can't find that in any fact."
Austin's greatest expansion came in what Fazio calls the "post era" of the early 1950s when the company was producing about an organ a week. Then, in the late-1960s, there was a falloff in organ production and a number of competitors went out of business. The industry was hit hard again in the '80s.
"After the last recession - 1988 or 1989 - one of the last great companies, M.P. Moller Co. in Hagerstown, Md., which had a plant three times the size of ours, fell. They went as a result of unionizing as a shop, where they had one supervisor to every two employees."
Like a good car
So what's the difference between a well-made and poorly made organ?
"I guess that could be like asking what makes a good car," says Fazio. "Does it have to be fast? Does it have to be comfortable? Does it have to have an impeccable track record for maintenance? If you can find a car that is comfortable, that is fast and won't cost you an arm and a leg to maintain, then you have a good car. An Austin organ is a very easy organ to maintain. We have organs from 1893 that continue to play. Austin organs are very comfortable."
There are 34 patents assigned to the Austin console, but they expired many years ago. Fazio says it doesn't really matter because "we do what we do and others do what they do."
But he touts his company's organs for tonal superiority and all-around sound. He notes the sound of an organ differs depending upon the church in which it is placed. A very modern evangelical church is going to have an organ completely different than a conservative synagogue or a Catholic church. It is a question of taste and what it is being used for. As Fazio says, "you don't drive a Ferrari from home to the train station."
Metal moves, too
The two main ingredients of an organ are wood and pipes. One can't exist without the other. Large pipes are made out of zinc and smaller pipes are made from spotted metal, which is half lead and half tin.
"There are different types of pipes in an organ," Fazio explains. "There are reeds, which are trumpets and clarinets and oboes; there are flutes; there are stops which we call principal stops and those are the traditional sounds of an organ; and there are strings, which evoke the sound of mass strings - not like a single violin, but 30 violins."
Fazio made a woodworking analogy when referring to the importance of pipes and their maintenance.
"Organs should be tuned once or twice a year depending on their installation. But what makes a really good organ is an organ that is properly designed to acoustically fill the room that it is in. And what makes a really good organ as opposed to a bad one is one that is well-constructed and provides access to tune the pipes and repair anything mechanical. If you had a table saw that you couldn't change the blade on, what good would that be?"
There is another similarity between an organ's pipes and wood.
"An organ will be greatly affected by temperature variance," Fazio says. "If the organ was tuned at 68 degrees and then in the middle of summer, with the room's temperature pushing 80 degrees, the organ will be significantly sharper. Yes, it is due to movement. Just like wood, metal contracts and expands. The pipes move in two different directions, getting longer and narrower, for example."
Born to build
Fazio was an organ student at Westminster Clark College (now part of Rider University) in Princeton, N.J., and was also involved in electronics and electronic security. Later, he was an organist at a small Lutheran church in Massachusetts that needed to have its organ rebuilt, and he helped the company doing the work. But his passion for organs really began as a child.
Fazio says he fell in love with the combination of music, electronics and woodworking. He grew up on Martha's Vineyard, Mass., and his elementary school had an "incredible woodshop." While learning to play the piano, organ, violin, flute and guitar, he somehow managed to find time to discover woodworking.
"The skills which I learned when I was 10 or 11 years old still work with me today when I get involved in the shop here. That instilled a love of woodworking and it continues. But I think that is something worth mentioning - elementary school shop class instilled a basic knowledge of woodworking that still serves me today. I went to a boarding school for high school and we didn't have a shop and I might never have known how to swing a hammer were it not for elementary school.
Changes are happening
Austin Organs currently builds about four organs a year and does a lot of repair work. Fazio says the lack of a sales effort before he became president significantly hurt the company's sales.
"In order to be a business, the sales effort has to be No. 1 on the list and that is where we are redeveloping new markets and looking at a new model of operation, which involves more of a team aspect where everybody works together and people who work in the mill will go out on an installation. People who work in the pipe shop occasionally help out in the mill. It's more of a team effort than everybody being compartmentalized.
"You have to be agile. I think our median age around here is about 40. We have some folks that are in their late 70s that are still coming in on a part-time basis and working in almost every department."
The average church organ sells for $350,000 to $500,000. A large instrument, like the Balboa Park organ in San Diego, would cost about $2.5 million in today's dollars.
Contact: Austin Organs, 156 Woodland St., Hartford, CT 06105. Tel: 860-522-8293. www.austinorgans.com
This article originally appeared in the August 2010 issue.