Replacing a church organ usually isn’t a momentous event unless you’re a scriptwriter trying to cobble together an episode of The Andy Griffith Show. The key word in that statement, however, is “usually.” Case in point: Tom Lewtak, of Lewtak Pipe Organ Builders, a Cooleemee-based company that is currently putting the finishing touches on the first American-made pipe organ ever to grace the sanctuary of a Danish church.
Tom Lewtak’s four year journey to Cooleemee
A native of Poland and a graduate of the Karol Szymanowski Academy of Music in Katowice, Lewtak was serving as church organist at St. Joseph’s Church in Camillus, New York when the priest decided to replace the electronic organ with a traditional pipe organ. When Lewtak was shown the replacement he would be playing, he saw that not only was it the wrong size for the church, but also that it had many parts that needed to be replaced.
The story might have ended with a simple case of buyer’s remorse on the priest’s part, but Lewtak had another idea: he’d use the skills he learned while minoring in organ building in Katowice to salvage all the usable parts and build a new organ more suited to the dimensions of St. Joseph’s. Helping him would be his brother Paul, an architect and interior designer who would create the façade, or outer casing, for the organ.
It was the start of a four-year journey that took Lewtak from New York to Denmark to Norway and back to New York — and eventually Cooleemee.
Organ Pipe Voicing
Though Lewtak had studied organ building, it was a far cry from actually crafting the pipes, each of which produces a unique timbre and sound (Mozart called the pipe organ the “king of instruments“). So he took a year’s sabbatical and traveled to Denmark, where he apprenticed at the world-renowned organ builder Carsten Lund Organ Builders in Copenhagen. He learned the art of “voicing” pipes — hammering and shaping them to create their distinct tones and sounds — from Mogens Pedersen, who for over 20 years was the chief voicer of Frobenius Organ Builders, responsible for the largest church organ in Denmark.
A Very Big Deal
Lewtak returned to Camillus and completed the organ for St. Joseph’s, and by 2006 had given up his organist position to become a full-time organ builder (Lewtak Pipe Organ Builders had been incorporated five years earlier in 2001). It was in Camillus that Tom built an organ for First Presbyterian Church in Greenville, NC that caught the eye of the leaders of Østerhåb Kirke (church) in Horsens, Denmark. They were so impressed that they commissioned the Lewtaks to build an organ for its new church, a minimalist marvel of concrete and stone with fantastic acoustics. Given the fact that Denmark is home to the world’s most famed and respected organ builders, the selection of Lewtak Pipe Organ Builders for the project is, to put it mildly, a very big deal.
And now it’s a very big deal for Davie County. Though Tom had lived in the Empire State since arriving in the U.S. in 1993 with his wife Jola (a fellow organist he met while studying at the Academy of Music), the appeal of North Carolina’s warmer climate and business-friendly environment led them to contemplate moving here — a decision that was cemented when Jola landed a position at a church in Clemmons.
Recital at Cooleemee Mill
The Lewtaks acquired a log cabin home in Mocksville and built a workshop for Lewtak Pipe Organ Builders. But the workspace proved to be insufficient for the Østerhåb Kirke project, and Tom is now completing his work at the Cooleemee Mill, a cotton mill that employed nearly 2,000 workers until its closure in 1969.
A recent organ recital gave visitors a chance not only to hear the organ ( the finishing touches have yet to be completed), but also tour the Lewtaks’ work area and the Mill itself, which is being considered for renovation as a multi-purpose facility featuring shops, restaurants, light industrial work spaces, and apartments.
To learn more about the Østerhåb Kirke project and the Lewtaks’ other creations, visit the Lewtak Pipe Organ Builders Web site