Barry McNamara  |  Published December 11, 2023

Those Other Musical Pipes

College’s Ardell Organ, which dates to 1946, has been restored and sounds (and looks) as good as new.

AS GOOD AS NEW: Although it just celebrated its 77th birthday, the College's Ardell Organ is back in prime shape after ... AS GOOD AS NEW: Although it just celebrated its 77th birthday, the College's Ardell Organ is back in prime shape after a restoration by Iowa's Randall E. Karstens. Pictured with the pipe organ is Monmouth music faculty member Solee Lee-Clark.MONMOUTH, Ill. – Log on to the Pipe Organ Database (pipeorgandatabase.org), and Monmouth College is represented. The top header on the school’s page reads “Schantz Organ Co. (Opus 6, 1946).”

The database’s “Status and Condition” header on that page about the College’s 77-year-old Ardell Organ can now receive a refresher – an update from “unknown,” to “as good as new,” thanks to a renovation of the instrument that was completed this year by Randall E. Karstens.

The Iowa City-based service and restoration technician finished his work in time for a Homecoming weekend concert. Monmouth music faculty member Solee Lee-Clark played a recital in Dahl Chapel and Auditorium featuring the music of William Byrd, G. H. Handel and Franz Liszt. It was followed by a talk by Karstens, who described the work needed for the “Status and Condition” upgrade.


Signs of wear

Karstens first began his focus on the Ardell Organ in the fall of 2019 after hearing from Lee-Clark that “lots of issues were creeping up with the instrument, including dead notes.”

“I traveled down to see it, and that confirmed my suspicions of what was needed,” said Karstens. “I tendered a proposal for a two-stage work process.”

Chief among the issues was repairing leather pouches – quite a few of them, in fact. Every pipe in the organ has a pouch under it to control the air to that pipe, and Monmouth’s organ has more than 2,000 pipes. In fact, during the previous restoration in 2003, which was funded by Robert Ardell ’62 and his wife, Lee, the number of pipes in the instrument was increased from 1,952 to more than 2,300.

“This was already a bigger project due to the number of leather pouches that needed to be repaired. I had to unscrew a lot of screws and then screw them back in. And It became a more lengthy process due to COVID and to vendor issues.” – Randall E. Karstens


Through the years, the leather pouches under the pipes begin to fail. The restoration begins with removing pouch boards, one of many steps to re-leathering the instrument. But before Karstens could get the project underway, COVID happened. The pandemic not only kept him off campus for several months, but it disrupted the supply chain.

“I spent a lot of time on site,” said Karstens. “This was already a bigger project due to the number of leather pouches that needed to be repaired. I had to unscrew a lot of screws and then screw them back in. And It became a more lengthy process due to COVID and to vendor issues.”


Celebratory concerts

In 2003, a concert by a special guest – renowned organist David Schrader – celebrated the rededication of the Ardell Organ, just as the legendary organist Marcel Dupré had visited campus in 1946 to perform the inaugural concert.

“The organ is sounding the best it has since I came to Monmouth in 2017. It has always been a good-looking instrument, but now it also sounds great.” Solee Lee-Clark


This time, the honor went to Lee-Clark, an accomplished musician who in 2014 gave a solo performance at Weill Recital Hall in New York City’s Carnegie Hall.

“The organ is sounding the best it has since I came to Monmouth in 2017,” she said. “It has always been a good-looking instrument, but now it also sounds great.”

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