University of Dubuque’s Custom-Crafted Pipe Organ Installation Underway

Aug 4, 2020 | University Relations staff

DUBUQUE, Iowa – The months-long process of installing University of Dubuque’s custom-crafted pipe organ is underway in Heritage Center’s John and Alice Butler Hall.

With the purpose of expanding students’ musical horizons and enhancing campus events, for 12 months Dobson Pipe Organ Builders built the new pipe organ in their shop in Lake City, Iowa.

“Every part of it was set up there, then taken down, finished, and packed. The same craftspeople who built the organ have come here to Dubuque to set it up,” said John Panning, president of Dobson.

The John and Alice Butler Organ’s origins date back much further than a year. Before Heritage Center opened in 2013, Dobson worked closely with UD’s design firm, Straka Johnson Architects, during the design phase of Heritage Center to make adequate preparations for the instrument. In 2017, UD Trustee John Butler (DHL’17) and his spouse, Alice (DHL’17), gifted the pipe organ.

The organ is designated by Dobson as Opus 97 since it is the 97th new organ built by the firm.  Installation began July 2020 and is scheduled to be completed mid-December. The physical installation of the organ will last through the third week of August. After that, the process of adjusting all 3,033 pipes for the proper sound, what is called “voicing” or “tonal finishing,” will occur.

“Building an organ is a real team enterprise. It’s like a combination of fine furniture-making but on the scale of a small house. And it requires the skills of many people, from fine woodworkers to machinists to musicians who work with the pipes. All told, over 29,000 hours will be required to build and install the organ. That’s equivalent to one person working more than 14 years,” Panning said.

The John and Alice Butler Organ will accompany UD campus events such as worship, convocations, baccalaureate, and choir performances; become an integral component of Christmas at Heritage Center; and be utilized as a practice and recital instrument. 

The majority of the instrument stands behind a visible display of pipes and woodwork at house left, while some of the largest pipes are placed out of sight above the proscenium and at house right. Though not visible, these areas are acoustically coupled to the hall and the bass pipes located there will be heard with clarity everywhere, a feature of the acoustical design by Threshold Acoustics of Chicago.

The console, the organ’s control center, is located below the visible pipes. It has three keyboards, or manuals, played by the hands and one keyboard, or pedalboard, played by the feet. These four keyboards control four major groups of pipes, or divisions. A specially-engineered system of mechanical linkages called the action connects the keys to the valves under the pipes, giving the organist intimate control over how they play. Because of their great size or remote location, some pipes are played using a special electrical control system designed to operate simultaneously with the mechanical action.

Some of the organ’s 3,033 pipes are constructed of metal and others of wood. In general, the largest are the wooden ones, the greatest of which is about two feet square and approximately 20 feet long. The smallest pipes are similar in size to a slender drinking straw. A few of the pipes are placed in the organ’s case to form a visual display, or a façade. These speaking pipes are made of an alloy of 85 percent tin and 15 percent lead, and they have a very highly polished silver appearance. The remainder of the pipes stand on three levels behind this façade, making a tower of organ 40 feet tall.

Two blowers totaling 10 horsepower supply the organ with the pressurized air or wind needed to play the pipes. These blowers are placed in the basement for sound isolation reasons. The wind is carried to the organ through large insulated ducts.

The total weight of the organ and its structure is approximately 26 tons.

Dobson was founded in 1974. Opus 97 is the firm’s 20th, and largest, organ in the state of Iowa. Dobson employs 21 craftsmen who custom-build and install each instrument. Dobson organs can be found from Fifth Avenue in New York to downtown Los Angeles, from Minnesota to Louisiana. In 2013, Dobson sent its first organ overseas to Merton College, part of the University of Oxford, in England. In 2022, it will install its Opus 99 in St. James’ Church in Sydney, Australia.