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Getting to know your neighbor: Heritage Pipe Organs turned a dream into a business

Photos by Lizz Schumer.
SPRINGVILLE — It started out as a dream, became a hobby and turned into a vocation. Larry Ploetz, owner of Heritage Pipe Organs in West Valley, said that he first became interested in organs in college, when he attended Alfred University. A music professor there used to give organ lessons on an organ he put together himself, and Ploetz, who had been raised on a farm surrounded by agricultural machinery, said he was fascinated by the organs.

“I mentioned to Edie Ploetz that I was interested in these instruments, and she had a connection to St. Peter’s Lutheran Church where this organ had been disassembled when it closed. Harold Olmsted had it in his barn in Sardinia and the hope was to build a chapel for it,” Larry Ploetz explained. “By 1970, when I went to see it, it had been in disuse for almost 25 years. It had been professionally packed in the 1950s, but kids had taken it out and played with it. The keys were laying in a gutter in the barn. It needed a lot of work.”

Ploetz said that a church at which his great-grandfather had been a pastor was interested in building a new church in Ellicottville, so Ploetz approached Olmsted to ask if he could take the organ and restore it for that new building. When Olmsted declined his offer, Ploetz said that he was “heartbroken and kind of blocked out pipe organs.

“I focused on finishing school and moved on with my life,” he said.

As time went on, however, Ploetz said pipe organs still remained at the back of his mind.

“In 1980, I woke up from a dream in which I was restoring a pipe organ, wondering what had happened to the organ in the barn. Harold [Olmsted] had passed away, so I went by the farm and Emily Oprea, his daughter, was there. She gave me the organ and said I could make an attempt to install it.”

Ploetz contacted the organ historical society and got in touch with Dana Hull of Ann Arbor, Mich., an expert in organ restoration. With Hull’s supervision, a team of local organ repair technicians worked on the instrument until it was rededicated on Dec. 7, 1986. It has been played every Sunday since.

“I became enthralled with the project,” Ploetz said, with a smile. “In those days, Schlicker was still making organs in Tonawanda and that company was looking for someone in their service department. I applied and got hired. My wife was gracious enough to let me quit my job and commute an hour, each way, to learn the trade.”

Ploetz worked for Schlicker Organs Inc. until it closed in 1992, at which time he formed the Rothenbuerger & Ploetz partnership with Louis Rothenbuerger, a former organ technician with decades of experience. As the business grew, Ploetz said the two realized they needed a shop of their own, and approached Donald Bohall, former Schlicker service manager and founder of Heritage Pipe Organs Inc. Ploetz and Rothenbuerger provided services for Heritage Pipe Organs in exchange for the use of the space. The business “grew and grew” as time went on, and the partners contracted to purchase the business from Bohall, as he planned to retire. Bohall passed away before the transaction could be completed, but in 1998 they completed the sale through his estate, and the pair received the majority of Bohall’s equipment with which to kick off their own business.

In 2001, Ploetz and Rothenbuerger moved into their facility on Route 219, which currently comprises 10,000 square feet of floor space with inventory and repair facilities with which to conduct the extensive repairs the business covers. Rothenbuerger has since retired, and Ploetz now owns and operates the corporation and the partnership with one fill-time employee, Eric Miller, and two part-time workers.

“You’ve gotta love it,” Ploetz said, of his job. “There are so many elements: electrical, mechanical, plumbing, physics, sound [and] tuning. A lot goes into it.

“I’m a country boy raised on a farm and here I was, traveling all over the country to repair organs in cathedrals.,” Ploetz said, of his job at Schlicker. “It gave me such joy to go into these majestic spaces and leave a little part of myself, every time.”

Today, the business serves more than 150 churches, schools and individuals in the area and cares for all of the cathedrals in the Western New York region. While the partners used to travel as far as Rome, N.Y. and Utica, now they try to stay within Western New York, generally going as far as the Finger Lakes region. Ploetz said that it is “humbling” for him to take care of these instruments, some of which date back to before the civil war.

“It takes you back, to realize the craftsmanship that went into these instruments,” he said. “There was no electricity and the workmanship is just incredible.”

A PIPE DREAM — Above, Ploetz demonstrates some of the tools he uses.
Depending on the size and extent of the project, Ploetz said it can take anywhere from a few weeks to several years to complete an organ restoration. Heritage Pipe Organs is the largest organ repair business in Buffalo, although there are also several others that work on a smaller scale.

Today, Heritage Pipe Organs’ restoration projects can range from repair and re-leathering to a total restoration.

“There’s a lot we can repair,” Ploetz said, of some of the older organs he sometimes encounters. “We try to restore them to today’s standards rather than the way they might have been built [in the past].” That includes installing what is known as solid state technology, which Ploetz explained uses both mechanical and electrical parts. Other organ components, including the voicing table and leather pieces, can also need to be replaced.

“We need to do re-leathering every 50 – 60 years, because those wear out,” Ploetz said. “Sometimes, there are also more subtle repairs, like tuning, that can need to be done.”

The project Ploetz called his “magnum opus” was a total restoration of the 1893 Johnson Organ at St. Stanislaus church in Buffalo, a project whose costs reached into the millions.

“It was installed by a company out of Massachusetts, in 1893,” Ploetz said. Heritage Pipe Organs completely rebuilt the instrument, including moving the electrical chests and improving the technology that had been disrupted by a restoration in the 1970s that Ploetz said had reduced the integrity of the sound.

“We were able to find pipes from the same manufacturer that had made the originals in a church in Ohio to restore the integrity, tonally,” Ploetz explained.

According to Ploetz, the sound of a pipe organ has changed over the years, in keeping with musical tastes.

“Different vintages will have different sounds. The trends go in swings,” Ploetz explained. “In the romantic period, you had these warm, round, sounds which became very heavy in the 1920s.

“Then the classic sound came in. The use of the organ has been a sort of pendulum,” he continued. “We’re coming off a part of the timeline where churches used almost exclusively praise bands. Now we’re slowly swinging back to a more blended sound; churches want the traditional organ sound, as well as the praise [music]. Those churches that were using just praise music now want their organs maintained; they want them to work again. Our phone is ringing all the time, now,” Ploetz said.

READY TO GO — Pictured is one of the organs in Ploetz’s shop.
Right now, Ploetz said he is working on the organ for St. Paul’s Lutheran Church, an organ he calls “Lazarus, because we raised it from the dead.

“Before I retire, I want to give that church a bigger organ to suit their space, because that’s where it all started,” he said.

In addition, Ploetz is working on an organ at the State University of New York at Fredonia, whose organ music classes have seen a resurgence, in recent years.

“Piano students have figured out that, if they can learn enough organ, they can get a weekend job [playing in churches]. Now, there’s a waiting list to use those instruments [at SUNY Fredonia].

“The demand is incredible,” Ploetz continued. “Churches cry when they lose someone.”

JOYFUL NOISE — Ploetz describes the way an organ makes sound.
Ploetz said that, with the resurgence of interest in organ music, business has been good. He said that proposals keep coming in for re-leathering, tuning and other reconstruction projects, in addition to emergency repairs that he will occasionally get calls to complete.

“I got a call once from St. Joseph’s Cathedral in Buffalo, at 10 o’clock at night,” Ploetz said. “It was Bishop Kmiec’s jubilee Mass the next day and one of pipes, 32 feet long, wouldn’t stop playing.”

Ploetz went into the city at 6 a.m. the next morning to silence the pipe and the Mass went off without a hitch.

“You’d be surprised what can happen [with organs],” he said. “For a church, that kind of thing can be catastrophic.”

From his early beginnings as an organ enthusiast, to his current work as one of the area’s foremost repairmen, Ploetz said he feels “incredibly blessed and fortunate” to be doing the work he does.

“I don’t know what I’ll do when I retire, because my hobby is my livelihood,” he said. “I love what I do, and I wouldn’t want to do anything else,” he said. “If I hadn’t taken this step, I wouldn’t have seen the things I’ve seen or done the things I’ve done. It’s opened doors and opened my eyes.”

Heritage Pipe Organs Inc. is located at 9952 Route 219 in West Valley and can be reached at 592-7144 or info@heritagepipeorgans.com. The business can also be found online at www.heritagepipeorgans.com.
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