Dale Ziegenfelder’s pipe dream

Dale Ziegenfelder (photos by Dion Ogust)

Diana Ziegenfelder remembers when the man she eventually married told her that he wanted to own a pipe organ one day. “‘Oh, great,’ I said,” she recalled last week, while sitting on a sofa in the couple’s mountainside home in Glenford. “I had no idea; I thought it was like a console.” Her husband Dale smiled at the memory, as she continued: “He said, ‘Is it okay with you?’ And I said, ‘Yeah, sure.’”

Diana Ziegenfelder’s smile widened as she remembered a later time when Dale introduced her to what a pipe organ looked and sounded like. “I couldn’t believe it,” she said, the wonder still apparent in her voice. Their marriage has survived what might have been a ruinous — let’s say massive — misunderstanding.

Dale Ziegenfelder’s desire for an in-house pipe organ was triggered when he was a high school senior in Cincinnati in 1969. It took most of his lifetime and nearly superhuman attention to detail to make that wish come true.

Advertisement

To appreciate Dale’s achievement, you have to appreciate the pipe organ itself. The pipe organ is the behemoth of the musical world. It is to an ordinary organ what a Zeppelin is to a helicopter. Its ancestry can be traced back 2000 years to ancient Greece. For centuries, pipe organs’ traditional lair was a towering cathedral; more recently, they became fixtures of early-20th-century movie palaces (think Radio City Music Hall’s “Mighty Wurlitzer”), where they did the work of an entire orchestra in accompanying silent films.

Dale’s pipe-organ dream stayed with him throughout his adult life. It remained, firmly lodged in the back of his mind, through a 15-year career as an electrical engineer at IBM and subsequently as the owner of nearly three dozen apartments in the area.

Pipe-organ aficionados are a devoted bunch. Ziegenfelder used to comb trade magazines devoted to the instrument in pre-Internet America. He found a one for sale — a 1950 Kilgen — at a cathedral that was being renovated in Davenport, Iowa in 1990. He went west with a suitcase full of tools and spent the ensuing two weeks disassembling the pipe organ that now stands — as discreetly as a two-and-a-half-stories-tall mechanical marvel can stand — inside the couple’s spacious home overlooking the Ashokan Reservoir.

Diana and Dale Ziegenfelder.

Dale and Diana recount his Iowa adventure as if it were yesterday. Not only did he dismantle the behemoth singlehandedly, he also first had to build the crates that he needed to make the trip home possible. On his arrival home, the couple needed the help of about a dozen friends, working all day in the summer of 1990, just to unload, unpack and store the organ’s wood and metal innards.

The two weeks that it took to disassemble and transport the organ were as nothing compared to the time it took Ziegenfelder to reconstruct it. It took 12-and-a-half years, to be exact.

The enormity of the task might have proven daunting to anyone else. The organ is comprised of 2000 pipes, each of which has to be mechanically connected to the keys and foot-pedals of the console. They stand today at permanent attention, like an army of massive and minute rockets awaiting their launch codes, lodged in two deep wells on either side of the organ’s multi-tiered console.

During a guided tour of the pipe wells, Ziegenfelder motions casually toward a wooden plank covered in what appears to be a network of spiderwebs. It’s something called a connection board, and it took Ziegenfelder two years to lace those spiderwebs into a functioning unit. “I’m an electrical engineer, after all,” he said.

The organ had its local debut in 2002, when the crew who sweated through the unloading of the organ’s parts were rewarded with a Christmastime concert performed by the man whose longtime dream had finally come true. Since then, the organ has been the sonic centerpiece of occasional private parties — especially come Halloween, when Dale wears what circumstance demands, when he takes his place before the keyboard wearing the most predictable of costumes: Whom else could he come disguised as, except the Phantom of the Opera?

Post Your Thoughts