Brooklyn’s Organ Transplantby Kristina Alda
Organ music swells and reverberates against the vaulted ceiling of the Baptist Temple in Boerum Hill, Brooklyn. Sitting with his back to the auditorium, a man sways forward and back on the organist’s bench as his hands dance across the keys and his legs lurch from pedal to pedal. His jerky motion is at odds with the peaceful expression on his face. Warm afternoon light filters in through stained-glass windows, creating intricate patterns on the worn beige carpet. As the final notes fade away, the man looks up smiling shyly. No one claps.
The room, which seats 1,200, is empty. The man at the organ is Keith Bigger. Slight, with neatly parted hair, dressed in a navy blue suit and wearing large aviator glasses, Bigger appears small next to the organ. He is not a professional organist but a telephone company technician. He has been restoring the J.W. Steere & Son pipe organ for the past 17 years.
Bigger’s fascination with the instrument began much earlier than that, however. His parents, who belonged to the Bushwick Avenue Baptist Church in Brooklyn, brought him to the Baptist Temple on a visit when he was five years old. At the time, services were held in the basement, but Bigger crept upstairs and fell in love with the tall pipes looming over either side of the choir at the front of the auditorium.
“It was the awe factor,” he says. When he finally came back to Baptist Temple in 1987, the organ was no longer functioning. Bigger offered to repair it, but the church administration said “Thanks, but we have no money,” he recalls. So he began fixing it for free: pipe by pipe, key by key. By 1989 he was spending so much time shuttling from his permanent home in Cambria Heights, Queens, to Boerum Hill that he decided to move into the church. He still lives there today.
“Home is where the pillow is,” says Bigger, whose pillow rests on a narrow metal cot in a choir room adjacent to a section of the organ’s pipes. He sleeps there six nights out of every week. On Saturdays he travels to Cambria Heights to have dinner with his brother, who looks after their parents’ home there.
Space is scarce, but the small choir room is organized well. Among the organ pipes fit a small refrigerator and a microwave. A low wooden shelf built into a cramped space within the organ chamber is neatly stacked with plastic containers of food—enough to feed Bigger for months.
“I buy in bulk because, you know, I try to live frugally,” he says. By his bed is another wooden shelf, this one lined with books. Nearly all of them are about organs or organ building.
“J.W. Steere was a Methodist, and he wanted to build an organ that would enhance the worship,” says Bigger, explaining how Steere would fine-tune an organ himself after installing it at a church to make sure the sound fit well with the acoustics of the room. The church that houses an organ, according to Bigger, is an integral part of the instrument.
Jonathan Hall, an organist and choirmaster at the Church of the Epiphany in Manhattan, agrees. “No two organs are built alike,” he says.
Built in 1918, the pipe organ at Baptist Temple is one of only two J.W. Steere & Son four manual pipe organs still in its original condition. “All organs suffer from improvement,” jokes Hall. What he means is that most organs undergo alterations as trends come and go, until very little of the original instrument remains.
“What saved this organ is that the church had no money,” says Bigger. The instrument Bigger encountered when he decided to start repairing it in 1987 was virtually unchanged from when he’d first seen it as a 5-year-old.
Except it didn’t play.
Bigger works for free, but his efforts don’t go unappreciated. He is the church’s official curator of the organ and is well known within the Boerum Hill community. His diligent work has earned him some renown outside the community as well, attracting interviews with the BBC and CNN.
“He’s certainly a hero at the temple,” says Heloise Gruneberg, former president of the neighborhood association and founder of the Boerum Hill Arts Center. “He’s been doing quiet work. He’s not one to make a parade,” she says.
The Reverend Vince Morgan, an associate pastor at Grace Baptist Church in Brooklyn, knows Bigger well. “I wish more churches had someone like him,” he says.
But Bigger is far less eager to extol his own accomplishments. He says that much of what he has learned fixing the J.W. Steere comes from organ builders who were willing to share their expertise. His 36 years as a central office technician for Verizon have also provided some skills for repairing the organ. For the most part, however, Bigger is self-taught, devouring one organ-building book after another.
After just four years of tinkering with the organ, Bigger got the instrument to play. Since then he has replaced its 525 missing pipes with recycled pipes from other church organs. Most of them are original Steere or something close. The ten bellows have been releathered, which took 14 years, and Bigger has repaired the organ’s keys.
Baptist Temple raised the money for replacement parts. Bigger volunteered 17 years of his life. But the project is far from being over. Restoring the instrument has been a holistic effort for Bigger. In order to make his repairs worthwhile, he has had to take on other projects such as fixing the church’s leaky roof. The organ needs continual maintenance, and Bigger is there to provide it. The instrument also needs to be played in order to remain well tuned and functioning, so Bigger has enlisted several local organists to play on it for practice.
No one plays the organ during church services any longer, however. “Unfortunately, the new minister loves to strum his guitar,” says Reverend Morgan.
The congregation has never heard the instrument played, according to Bigger. “I don’t think [the church members] understand the organ’s marvelous history,” says Gruneberg.
But while Bigger says he regrets that the organ isn’t a regular part of Sunday service, he is grateful that the instrument is being played at all. He has faith that the congregation will come to appreciate the pipe organ’s powerful sound. “I know sooner or later they will hear it,” he says calmly and with conviction.
Baptist Temple’s dwindling congregation has recently expanded. New pastors have come in and succeeded in recruiting church members off the streets. “These are brand new Christians. It is an exciting time. I come in from work and I know I will be sucked into this vortex,” says Bigger.
Two years ago he became an official member of Baptist Temple’s congregation. For the previous 45 years he belonged to a Baptist church in Queens, but now he finds himself more involved in the church and the Boerum Hill community. He is well versed in the history and architecture of the area and is an active member of the neighborhood association. He volunteers in the church’s outreach programs. Restoring the organ has led to a sense of purpose for Bigger, and a new home.
“The pipe organ was God’s burning bush to get me here,” he says.
KRISTINA ALDA is a freelance writer and graduate of NYUs magazine journalism program.