By Katie Paxton
George Taylor recalls his first visit to Washington and Lee University in 1959. He remembers entering Lee Chapel and being quickly drawn to the antique organ in the gallery, which was looking forlorn with neglect.
In the next four years, as a student, he would play an important part in the restoration of that organ. He gave his senior recital on the restored instrument.
Ever since then, building classical pipe organs is all he’s ever done.
“My wife says I’m addicted,” Taylor says.
After graduating in 1964, Taylor was awarded a Ford Foundation grant to spend three and a half years apprenticing with an organ-building firm in Hamburg, Germany. He later met New Englander John Boody. They were both working for an organ builder in Ohio.
When the Ohio company decided to move to the west coast, Taylor and Boody founded their own business in Augusta County, just north of Rockbridge County, through connections Taylor had in Lexington. They renovated and moved into an abandoned school building in 1979 and Taylor and Boody Organbuilders was born.
Today, Taylor and Boody is a world-renowned manufacturer of 15th and 16th century-style organs. They have several organs in Japan and Europe, and in 2013 finished building their largest organ ever, for Grace Episcopal Church at 10th and Broadway in New York City.
Built from the ground up
Almost all their organs are built from the ground up, which can get “wickedly expensive,” Taylor said. Not only are traditional pipe organs almost three times as expensive as electronic-digital organs, but they are also designed specifically for the space, with exquisite craftsmanship and all parts built from scratch.
Last year, when R. E. Lee Memorial Church in Lexington decided it was time to replace its 1965 pipe organ, it considered a proposal from Taylor and Boody for slightly less than $1 million, along with proposals from several companies much farther away.
Ted Bickish, the church’s music director, said he and other organ committee members considered Taylor and Boody because they’re a local company “of international reputation.”
“They always do great work, and they presented some interesting ideas,” Bickish said. “They’re a great builder.” But the parish’s vestry, accepting the organ committee’s recommendation, decided last week to work with a less expensive proposal from established organ-builders in Quebec, Casavant Frères.
A member of Lexington church’s organ committee, Bob Glidden, former president of Ohio University and professor of organ music, said Taylor and Boody has a “sterling reputation,” but the church simply couldn’t afford their style of instrument.
“They would probably be a third more of the cost than one we’d probably select,” he said. “Here they are, a world renowned builder and right next door, so it seems to make sense that we would have one. I have the highest respect for their craftsmanship and their musicianship.”
In about 30 years, Taylor and Boody have built more than 70 instruments for universities, churches and private studios. The company attracts many aspiring apprentices from several countries.
“We’ve had a number of trainees from Europe, largely from Germany, but at the moment we have just taken on someone for a year and a half from Naples,” Taylor said.
Building a mechanical action organ is no small feat. All of the work for each organ happens in shop, from designing, to hammering out lead and shaping the pipes, to cutting the wood base, to tuning each pipe by hand.
“As an organ builder, you get to dream up the project and design it for a given space,” Taylor said. “You have to understand the mechanics and technical aspects. You have to understand architecture, music, the history of the music of the organ and why you choose this over that.”
Boody says he loves the work and getting to be a part of all the steps in creating an organ from scratch. Taylor agreed.
“We like what we do so much that we’re not the best businessmen sometimes when it comes to asking for what other people would think we ought to get,” Taylor said. “A lot of times you do something because you love doing it and you want to do it for nice people.”