A Tale of Requited Love: A Man and a Pipe Organ
The New York Times
May 12, 2002 Sunday
By DAPHNE SASHIN
SECTION: The City Weekly
This is a love story about a man and a pipe organ.
The man, Keith Bigger, 55, has worked for the phone company since he was 22. In warmer weather, his uniform is a short-sleeved button-down shirt and Sears trousers. He carries a beeper and two bundles of keys, including ones to the Baptist Temple in Boerum Hill, Brooklyn.
In that temple, in 1951, the 5-year-old Keith first saw the 2,533-pipe J. W. Steere & Son organ, built in 1918. He had sneaked into the empty sanctuary during the annual church supper, and in the dim light, he saw the brass pipes glimmering in the distance.
It took 36 years for him to return. And as it turned out, Mr. Bigger ended up rebuilding that organ — the restoration is in its 15th year — and moving into the church to do it.
His love for the instrument goes back to his childhood. When he arrived at Thomas Edison Vocational High, he started taking organ lessons at a nearby church. When he was 22, he spent two years building his own organ in his family’s basement.
In 1987, he met a couple who belonged to the Baptist Temple, where he had seen those gleaming pipes, and made some inquiries. He learned that the congregation had dwindled, the roof leaked and only three of the five keyboards were playing. Few current church members had even heard the instrument.
Mr. Bigger volunteered to restore the organ — the church would have to pay for parts only — and the longtime church administrator, Arthur Norregaard, happily agreed.
“We said, ‘Go!’ ” Mr. Norregaard said. “It’s a beautiful organ, one of the finest-sounding organs around.”
Two years into the restoration, Mr. Bigger, then on strike from the phone company, was spending more and more time at the church. One night, he saw a mattress propped up against a wall. He realized that he could accomplish more if he slept there. Mr. Bigger, who “had some girlfriends way back” but never married, has been living near the organ ever since.
Six nights a week, Mr. Bigger sleeps on a cot next to one of the organ chambers. On Saturdays, he drives his Buick Le Sabre — license plate JWSTEERE — to his childhood home in Cambria Heights, Queens, which he shares with his brother, to do his laundry.
After 15 years, the restoration continues. Into the church, Mr. Bigger has moved a microwave oven and a bookcase’s worth of organ-building books. He keeps an anteroom stocked with canisters of bow-tie noodles and a jumbo-sized bottle of Hershey’s chocolate syrup. He will move out if anyone asks, but no one has suggested it.
The organ was in playable condition by 1991, but Mr. Bigger continues to do repairs on the instrument and anything else that needs fixing. “What’s the sense of fixing the organ if the roof leaks?” he said.
He patches leaks in the roof. He automated the heating system. He changed the lights in the chandeliers to long-life fluorescents.
Mr. Bigger says he may go home someday, but for a complete restoration, the organ’s pedal board still needs to be restored and every bit of leather must be replaced. “It’s his lifework,” said Betsy Mitchell, a church member. “Some people never find their lifework.”