Washington National Cathedral

National Cathedral pipe organ undergoing major upgrades

Renovation aims to restore historic instrument by 2029.

NBC Universal, Inc.

Major upgrades are in the works at the Washington National Cathedral as part of a $14 million expansion project to improve its massive pipe organ.

The renovation project seeks to refurbish and rebuild the historic instrument, which boasts more than 100,000 pipes. 

“The instrument will be refurbished and rebuilt reusing pipes from where we can, recycling where we cannot,” National Cathedral Deputy Director of Facilities and Preservation Patrick Smith said. 

Installed in 1938, the pipe organ was erected during the cathedral's construction. Over the years, wear and tear have led to tuning and sound issues. 

“By the time this organ was completely shut off, we were already at about 75% of it being operational,” organist and National Cathedral Associate Director of Music Tom Sheehan said. “Either portions had gone dead or portions had been intentionally shut off. The pipes wouldn’t stop sometimes. The valve would get stuck sometimes, and then you’d have to go and remove the pipe in order to make it stop.” 

Now, large and smaller pipes and pieces of the organ are being dismantled, packed and shipped off for improvements. The largest pipe, measuring 17.5-feet long and weighing 442 pounds, is among the components being restored. 

Project leaders emphasize that the process of taking the organ apart and resembling it will require time and a very meticulous strategy. 

“We had 166 10-foot trays and 80 5-foot trays,” said Douglas McKeever of Foley-Baker Organ, Inc. “Some of them have pipes, some of them have parts. All of that has to be labeled and cataloged so that we can put it all back together when we need to.” 

For the past six months, and continuing into the future, the cathedral will use a digital organ for services and events. The new and improved pipe organ is scheduled to be installed in 2029.

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