In 1865, an immigrant from Goteberg, Sweden, with a grand vision for music opened a modest cabinet-making shop at 24th and Mission streets in San Francisco.
John Bergstrom wouldn’t be long known for cabinets. He became renowned as a designer and manufacturer of exquisite pipe organs. They were towering creations – virtual cathedrals of sound – that reached toward the heavens with gold-leafed hardwood and intricately stenciled and painted musical pipes.
Aided by water pressure, his organs’ sophisticated labyrinth of keys, pedals and pumps powered levers, bellows and air valves into a stirring symphony. By the mid-1880s, Bergstrom had built an estimated 66 pipe organs. His wonders of craftsmanship became musical and spiritual hearths in churches from San Francisco to British Columbia and Mexico to Hawaii.
Now volunteers are trying to find a new home for one of his last surviving creations.
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For more than 50 years, a majestic pipe organ built by Bergstrom about 1885 has sat forlornly in a warehouse at the El Dorado County Fairground in Placerville. Few people get to see the 20-foot-tall marvel that occupies some 400 square feet, with its pipes nearly touching the ceiling.
The organ, sold to the Placerville Federated Church for $2,500 in 1904, is occasionally a backdrop for fairground events such as mineral and gem or home accessory shows that are held in the warehouse known as “the organ building.” Often it is merely covered by a drape.
Fair officials say the organ hasn’t had a suitable exhibit site – or perhaps even been played – since it was moved to the fairground after the Federated Church was leveled in Placerville’s historic downtown about 1960. Fair officials say the organ simply takes up too much space and they want it moved – though only after a suitable location is found.
“It’s just not serving anybody here,” said Kathy Jurgens of the El Dorado County Fair Association. “It’s just kind of sits. It’s sad, really sad.”
The Fair Association and the El Dorado County Historical Museum are now reaching out to churches, museums and preservationist groups to see if anyone has a suitable space for the pipe organ. They are also seeking to raise donations to have Bergstrom’s work disassembled, rebuilt and repaired so that it can be displayed – and played again – in a setting offering the grandeur that it deserves.
In an age when few churches or public facilities can accommodate something of such scale, it may be a difficult quest.
“It’s a beautiful item. It’s historically significant to Placerville. But it needs to go to a good home where it can be played and appreciated,” said Mary Cory, director of the El Dorado County Historical Museum. “It is a spectacular artifact.”
Lee Lovallo, a music professor at National University in Sacramento who has restored historic pipe organs, said the Placerville pipe organ is believed to be one of the last four surviving organs built by Bergstrom, who died in 1909.
One other Bergstrom pipe organ, a smaller version meticulously restored, remains as the centerpiece in the sanctuary of the First Congregational Church of Sonoma. Many others were believed to have been destroyed in the 1906 San Francisco earthquake and resulting fires – just two years after the Placerville church took delivery of its organ.
Lovallo said the design of the Placerville pipe organ, built before organs ran on electricity, was a technological marvel of the times.
“He (Bergstrom) brought a high degree of craftsmanship, No. 1,” Lovallo said. “No. 2, his technology was entirely mechanical. The organ was pumped by hand or by a water motor, using water pressure to run a bellows. The motion of the organ player’s fingers transported to levers all throughout the instrument. A web of connectors opened the air to individual pipes.
“In their day, these organs were the space shuttle of their century.”
In this day, Lovallo said it could take $10,000 just to disassemble and pack up the pipe organ, plus untold costs “to restore it and make it playable again.”
Efforts to bring the historic pipe organ back to life have drawn the attention of national preservationists and organ enthusiasts, including James R. Stettner, president of Puget Sound Pipe Organs in Seattle.
Stettner, who said the Placerville organ “is likely the largest surviving Bergstrom,” wrote Cory a letter that urged her to at last find the work the place of honor that it deserves.
“The ultimate reason for my writing, aside from the history lesson, is to encourage you and the El Dorado County Historical Museum to please, PLEASE cherish the significant treasure you hold and also to encourage you to explore avenues of fundraising to have this organ restored and made available to be heard and enjoyed again,” he wrote.
Though there is no suitable space at the local fairground or county museum, Cory said she hopes Bergstrom’s creation, once suitably restored, may someday play its sweet music in or near Placerville. Regardless, she said, it needs a home somewhere.
“It makes me sad to think that it’s not out there where people can appreciate it and enjoy it,” she said.
Call The Bee’s Peter Hecht, (916) 326-5539.