Pulling Out the Stops at Hartford's Austin Organs

It's easy to miss Austin Organs. The sign is small, the driveway partially hidden behind a clump of trees. Residents of Hartford, Connecticut may have passed it a dozen times without registering much beyond a brick building and a row of dusty, clouded-over windows. But behind those windows, within shouting distance of a hospital and a pizza place, they're not just building instruments--they're making monoliths.

Here are pipes sixteen feet tall, pitched against the walls like enormous tin crayons. Here is a skull-rattling assemblage of belts and saws, less a machine than a steampunk roller coaster, dedicated to the production of tiny pedal action units. Austin-one of the country's oldest manufacturers of pipe organs-may be crafting music machines, but you could easily mistake their output for the components of a space shuttle...the kind da Vinci might've dreamt up (or a kid with a particularly extensive Erector Set).

In an era of digital simulation, when even a singer's voice can sound synthesized, an Austin organ is a beautiful anomaly: behemoths made of wood, glue, and wind, constructed using machines that date back to the 1920s-and techniques that are older still. Looking at (or listening to) one of them, it's easy to understand why the instrument is a fixture of religious worship. The hugeness of an Austin organ, in sound as well as size, nearly overwhelms. But for the people who work at the Hartford plant, the instruments aren't just monoliths of the usual, biblically proportioned variety. They're monuments to craftsmanship, of centuries of tradition and slow, gradational refinement. They are monuments, ultimately, of the real.