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Ann Arbor Yesterdays ~ Of Organs And Choirs

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Ann Arbor Yesterdays -- Of Organs And Choirs

By Lela Duff

It seems appropriate to conclude our Lenten series on the history of Ann Arbor’s early churches with some note of the music the church people came to expect and demand. It is a far cry from the customary simplicity of the ’services of the "nonconformist” denominations of the 1830’s to the elaborate choirs and organ music we read of in all the churches toward the end of the century.

You will recall that the Rev. Jonathan Chapin refused to preach at the dedication of the new Methodist Church on Ann St. when he heard that musical instruments were to accompany the singing.

Within a few short decades, however, gigantic financing schemes were being undertaken to equip the churches with pipe organs, involving many thousands of dollars on top of what was being painfully raised for the buildings themselves. In that very Methodist organization we find dozens of the good women contributing janitor service in lieu of money to swell the organ fund.

Undoubtedly the one person who gave most impetus to this new love of fine church music was the young Latin professor, Henry Simmons Frieze, the gifted amateur organist and choir director who joined the University faculty in 1854. The newspapers tell of his giving concerts on the various church organs with “selections from Rossini and Handel,” and, a quarter of a century after his arrival, of his organizing a “Choral Union” from the church choirs to sing “The Messiah.” Though his talents were offered as a labor of love, we find St. Andrew’s remitting his pew rent at one time “as a slight acknowledgement of his services as organist.”

A somewhat later potent influence on the development of singing in Ann Arbor, both solo and in groups, was the prolonged work of that delightful musical couple, the Reuben Kempfs. But they deserve an article by themselves some Monday soon. This brings us to the mention again of an element in Ann Arbor’s population which made its development into a music center inevitable: the musical nature and previous training of the Germans who settled here.

And now for a tie-up with what for a generation or two was one of the city’s most successful industries—the organ factory. In 1867 G. F. Gaertner, a native of Stettin, North Germany, started an organ works in his home somewhere on the west side of town, where he made pipe and reed organs by hand. His granddaughter tells me that he was of so artistic a temperament that when his business prospered, no plain factory-type front would do for the building he erected on Liberty St. just west of Main; he had to have a stained glass church window to indicate the nature of his product. Tradition says that Gaertner built the University’s first organ.

In training under Gaertner was a German lad who later became his son-in-law, David F. Allmendinger, a distant cousin of the earlier Washtenaw Allmendingers.

When Gaertner found his handmade organs no longer profitable and gave up his business, young Allmendinger continued the work, at first in his own little house on the west side of First St. between Washington and Huron. For his first organ he carved the “ivories” for the keys out of soup bones. This handmade instrument was in daily use in the Bethlehem Parochial School for 25 years, by the end of which Teacher Fischer’s fingers had worn through the bone “ivories” and made grooves in the oak underneath. Of course all of the pipe organs of that day had to be pumped by hand, and the lapses of the pumping boy were often a sore trial to the organist.

David Allmendinger built three of Ann Arbor’s church organs.

Besides the making of pipe organs, however, he built a great quantity of the small reed organs that graced the parlors of the era, beautifying them with delicate wood carving. He once sent a whole carload of them to missionaries in Africa. Among Allmendinger’s inventions was an ingenious door near the foot pedals that fell into place closely so that mice could not get into the air chamber to gnaw at the leather bellows.

So the industry grew until, after taking on the manufacture of pianos as well, it required in its prime the large brick structure you still may see on the northwest corner of Washington and First Sts. The Allmendinger home took up most of the land on W. Washington between Third and Seventh St., and with its gardens and ponds and its oak trees 5 feet in diameter became quite a show place.

The 13 children in the family were all musical. A quartet of sisters in their early teens—a sort of “Lennon Sisters” group of the turn of the century—were trained by the Kempfs and featured with the Lyra Chorus. Their brother Victor was for many years the official piano tuner of the School of Music. He was once known to take an artist’s piano apart bit by bit when it had become chilled on its journey to Ann Arbor and to have it together again in perfect harmony in time for the concert.

Helen Allmendinger’s career as a contralto singer took her far from Ann Arbor. After arduous training in Cologne and Paris, she rejected an opportunity to star in opera to take up the less demanding concert, choir, and studio work in America.

For the first community Christmas Sing in Hill Auditorium in 1913 she was called home from Cleveland to be the soloist with Professor Stanley’s accompaniment. It is a privilege to have this gracious lady living among us again in the sort of retirement that is not a retreat from living.

Other musical families come to life in the pages of the church histories, none more gifted perhaps than the Casparis of St. Thomas. A confectioner by trade, William Caspari, sr., appears in the choir photograph of 1885, a substantial looking gentleman in side-whiskers.

In the 1895 choir picture we see his young son, William, jr., who was to be a professional tenor, and his daughter, Frances, the beauty of whose voice attracted the notice of Schumann-Heink. In the midst of honors in New York City, Frances became homesick for Ann Arbor and came back to devote her talent to St. Thomas parish.


This building on the northwest corner of the home of the organ factory established here W. Washington and First Sts. was originally by David Allmendinger.