Perhaps the most striking thing about organ repair isn’t the sight of lead alloy pipes reaching for the ceiling, nor the sheer number of antique switches, connections and keys involved in the puzzle – but the craftsmanship of a builder’s hand when it works in concert with the keen sense of a musician’s ear to find that grand sound.
That, as it seems, is what caught the interest of Rod Levsen Sr., who made organ repair his livelihood in 1954.
“I’ve always been rather mechanically inclined,” said Levsen, the 81-year-old founder of Levsen Organ Company who worked a night job as a groundskeeper at First Presbyterian Church in Davenport decades ago while attending Davenport High School.
“When I was at First Presbyterian Church, they had a nice, big, old pipe organ up there, a rather large one. When I finished working in the evening, I had all the keys. So I went up and I’d sit down and play the big organ and think, ‘Oh boy, this is for me.’”
Years of studying piano as a boy combined with his experiences at the church found Levsen tuning pianos to save money for college after he graduated from high school. His mechanical interest and fascination with electronics lead him to do well with the work and “college never came.”
A passion becomes a career
After a decade as a sales and service representative for the Highland, Illinois-based Wick’s Organ Company, Levsen branched out, building the company’s plant in Buffalo, Iowa, in 1980. And he began building his own Levsen-brand organs.
“One of the things that I’ve always sort of had in the back of my mind — I wanted to be able to create a service business that would help other people and churches,” Levsen said, “to have a reliable, well known business that I could leave for my family. So, two of my sons work in our business and my grandson Chris is in the business now, and who knows where it goes from there.”
Levsen spends much of his time in the office now, but the other two generations go where the work is.
“We have 215 churches that we tune and service for — they’re all over the country," Levsen said.
The market for church organs certainly isn’t what it once was for the company.
“We’ve taken a beating because of the economic thing, and churches are having their problems,” Levsen said.
With churches closing doors because of low attendance, an abundance of used organs depressed the market for new organ orders that made the Levsen business thrive in the late '80s and early '90s.
Business has changed, but it has not gone away. Even sales of used organs between churches creates a role for Levsen to play.
“A sizeable organ takes a couple three or four days to take it apart then you have to move it to where its new place is, and then you also have to redesign it, usually, to fit in a new place — and we do that,” Levsen said.
Work to do at Musser Mansion
One such job is at the Muscatine Art Center, the former mansion of Laura Musser and husband Edwin McColm. The mansion was built as a wedding gift from Laura’s father, Peter Musser, a lumber baron.
As a singer, pianist and organist, Laura Musser studied music at Grant Seminary in Chicago and under Giovanni Sbriglia, an Italian opera singer in Paris, France. She was known to perform for parties and other gatherings and on local radio in Muscatine. Inspired by Musser’s love for music, a music room and Estey organ, built by Estey Organ Company of Battleboro, Vermont, was added to the mansion in 1921.
In 1933, McColm met an untimely death. Musser remarried in 1938 and moved to Kansas City, Missouri, with second husband, William T. Atkins.
Despite the move, she maintained ownership of the home, and would stop in whenever she was in Muscatine until her death in 1964 at the age of 87.
The Musser Mansion was gifted to the city in 1965 to become an art gallery and museum for Muscatine.
The mansion has been closed since February 2016 while it underwent remodeling.
“It’s been a long haul for the staff,” said Melanie Alexander, director of the Muscatine Art Center. “There has been a lot of behind the scenes work that people don’t necessarily know about, moving exhibits in and out of storage.”
Heating and air systems have been updated to control temperature and humidity for different exhibitions, the roof was replaced, the exterior trim painted, and damaged plaster in the music room was repaired. That's where Levsen became involved.
Levsen Organ Company removed the pipes of the organ to allow scaffolding to be installed while repairs were made to the plaster and the room was painted. During that work, the organ was cleaned and prepared to be reinstalled and tuned.
“We’ve been hearing Levsen tuning the organ as they’ve been installing it, but we haven’t heard it truly played since it’s been out," Alexander said. "It’ll be exciting."
The work in the mansion will be completed by the end of April, and a public reception is being planned for Saturday, April 29.
With the work Levsen Organ Company is doing, it won’t be long before we hear the Estey Organ playing again at the mansion and that is what it is all about to Rod Sr.
“I love to hear the grand organ play,” Levsen said. “You know, when it’s all over with, and know that you’ve had a part with that and know that you’ve had a part with an instrument that is going to serve that congregation for a hundred years or probably more, that never goes away.”