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Iowa Workshop Whose Pipe Organs Shook the World Burns to the Ground

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LAKE CITY, Iowa — Randall Wolff was working in a back room at Dobson Pipe Organ Builders earlier this month, fashioning parts for an instrument bound for an Anglican church in Australia, when he caught a whiff of smoke. Seeing flames licking in from the next room, and aware of how flammable the kiln-dried wood used in their organs was, he grabbed a fire extinguisher.

But he could not douse the flames in time. Dobson, a Western Iowa business that got its start in 1974 making organs for churches around the Midwest and then grew in reputation — its majestic pipe organs resonate at Verizon Hall in Philadelphia, in the 13th-century Merton College Chapel in Oxford, England, and at St. Thomas Church on Fifth Avenue in New York City — was reduced to smoldering rubble in the June 15 fire.

“A lot of the tools we use are specialty tools that we had made over the years for specific purposes,” Wolff, 61, a woodworker who has been with the firm for 22 years, lamented the other day as he surveyed the smoking ruins, the second-degree burns on his arms still wrapped in bandages. “You can’t just go to Home Depot and buy a new one.”

The firm’s founder, Lynn A. Dobson, 71, was at his home in Minnesota when he got word of the blaze. On the drive to Lake City he watched, with growing alarm, as photos of the fire were posted on Facebook, and when he arrived at the scene that night, he recalled, “I was numb.” It was not until the next day, when a front-end loader knocked down the last standing bit of the building that has been home to the firm since 1979, a pillar bearing the “Dobson” company name, that the weight of emotions caught up with him.

“That’s the first time that I shed a tear,” he said. “As long as that pillar was there, there was still something left. But, when that went down, that was the end.”

Dobson, who grew up in Iowa watching his father build cabinets and listening to his sister practicing the organ, got his start by building a 12-stop mechanical-action organ in the shed of his family’s farm while he was still in college. It was later sold to a church in Sioux City. A Des Moines radio station got wind of the young man who built an organ on a farm and aired a short feature. That led to other opportunities, including a commission to build an organ for a church in St. Paul. “It was just like winning the lottery,” Dobson said.

Since then he has designed nearly a hundred organs for universities, recital halls and churches across the United States, particularly in the upper Midwest. Mark Koskamp, of Des Moines, plays a Dobson organ that was built in 1982 at a United Presbyterian church in Indianola.

“It’s like having an early Picasso or van Gogh,” he said.

The firm now gets commissions from all over the world.

The organ Dobson built in 2006 for Verizon Hall in Philadelphia, the home of the Philadelphia Orchestra, has nearly 7,000 pipes ranging from about the size of a pencil to one that is 32 feet tall and two feet wide, and was described as the largest mechanical-action concert hall organ in the United States. It was praised by James R. Oestreich of The New York Times for the “glorious ruckus” it produced. Jeremy Filsell, the organist and director of music at St. Thomas Church in New York, described the majestic organ that the firm built for the church in 2018, with its 7,069 pipes, as extraordinarily versatile.

“It’s a significant instrument, and is as eclectic as instruments come,” Filsell said, “so it caters for virtually every range of style from the early Baroque through to all the kinds of colors and timbres that Messiaen asks for in his significant organ works.”

The Australia-bound organ that was consumed by the fire was to be the firm’s 99th organ; St. James’ Church in Sydney, which commissioned it, said it had determined that Dobson was “the best builder for the task” after considering firms in the United States, Britain and Germany.

As news of the fire spread, church choir directors, music professors, organists and organ builders filled the company’s Facebook page with messages of grief and support. Calls and text messages poured in offering condolences and donations. A retired West Coast organ builder sent a check for $2,250, which he estimated would provide 15 organ builders with $150 each to purchase new tools.

Dobson moved into the Lake City building, on the town square, in 1979, after taking out loans and working weekends with his family to transform a condemned, dilapidated building that had previously been home to a tractor repair shop, a hatchery, a bowling alley and a Ford dealership into a pipe organ factory.

Dobson recently sold the business to a protégé, John Panning, 58, and his wife, Judy, but stayed on as the company’s principal designer. They got together over the weekend to take stock: they have scans of Dobson’s final drawings, but they lost the hundreds of sketches that preceded each completed design. Also destroyed: high-quality photos of many of the early instruments they built, and photos Dobson had taken of craftspeople working in the shop, which were filed in big drawers labeled for each organ the firm built.

“It’s not about the building,” said John Panning, who joined the firm in 1984, and who had been in Chatham, Mass., working on an installation when the fire broke out. “But it kind of is. It has a history, and that’s a kind of capital that helps you know that you can handle the projects that are coming up.”

The fire apparently began, Wolff said and the state fire marshal’s office confirmed, in a system designed to collect wood dust from a router Wolff was using at the time.

Now they have decisions to make, about where to rebuild and how. They said they plan to look for temporary space in the community; Judy Panning praised the volunteer firefighters from Lake City and surrounding areas who had fought the blaze with water from a local pond, and the neighbors who showed up with stacks of boxed pizzas.

Dobson Pipe Organ Builders may have lost its building, its tools and some of its archives, but its staff remains, steeped in the kind of technical expertise that is passed from one artisan to the next. And despite a challenging market for pipe organs, in an era of declining church attendance and competition from digital instrument makers, Dobson and the Pannings expressed confidence that the company would remain viable.

“There will always be people for whom this is important,” John Panning said. “And there’s still good work to be done.”


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