Music to Our Ears

Complex and time-consuming to make, Reuter Organs are made right here in Lawrence.

| 2017 Q2 | story and photos by Steven Hertzog


New pipes receiving their initial shop voicing

Complex and time-consuming to make, Reuter Organs are made right here in Lawrence.

When someone thinks of the great violins of the world, one thinks of Stradivarius and the city of Cremona, Italy. When someone listens to the finest pianos in the world, one is often hearing a Steinway, built in New York.

When a guitar maestro is on stage, there’s a good chance the instrument is a Martin, made in Nazareth, Pennsylvania. And when someone is sitting in church anywhere in the United States, odds are they are listening to a Reuter pipe organ, made right here in Lawrence, Kansas.


 Organs(Top to Bottom) Laying out pipes to be cut and formed ; Freshly formed and soldered pipes before washing; Wiring windchest components; Aluminum-clad expression shades for volume control

The Reuter Organ Co. was founded by Adolf Reuter and Earl Schwarz in 1917 in Trenton, Illinois. Starting with six employees, its goal was “to put out an instrument second to none.”

In 1919, when an organ was commissioned for the Masonic Temple, in Lawrence, local business leaders put together a package of economic incentives, and the Reuter Organ Co. moved its operation to Lawrence.

The downtown Lawrence building the company moved into, which previously housed the Wilder Brothers Shirt Factory, was located near Sixth and New Hampshire streets. Reuter remained downtown until 2001, when it moved to larger facilities in northwest Lawrence.

The move to larger headquarters allowed the company to cultivate a custom-production line and create a better space to build world-class pipe organs.

As Reuter begins its second century of crafting fine pipe organs, the stewardship now falls under the watchful eye of Albert Neutel, affectionately know to everyone as J.R., (as in J.R. Ewing). J,R. began working with Reuter in the 1980s. He worked as an organ finisher and also handled sales. He took over for his father, Albert, who is now chairman of the board, while Neutel serves as president and chief executive officer.

“First, you start with the sales person,” Neutel says. “Then you go to the engineer, then the pipe makers, the chest makers, the wind systems, the consoles, the voicing; so there are a lot of different facets to building a pipe organ.”

Reuter is a multimillion-dollar international firm with organs in the United States, Canada, Taiwan and Korea. There are very few pipe organs in the Asian market right now, and Neutel is working to change that. He spends as many as 250 days a year traveling the world promoting the Reuter brand. Besides churches and synagogues, people will put pipe organs in concert halls, universities and even private residences.

The creation and manufacturing of a Reuter pipe organ is incredibly labor-intensive. Neutel estimates that more than 1,000 hours of labor go into the making of a single custom-made organ. Think about it: If one person worked full-time to build an organ, it would take nearly six months to complete.

The cost of a pipe organ makes it a high-end luxury product. Next to the construction of a church, its pipe organ is likely the second-most costly part of the church. A modest, brand-new pipe organ in today’s economy would cost anywhere from $350,000 to several million dollars.

What makes each pipe organ so unique is mainly the space in which it is installed, the acoustics and the visual setting.

“We have a saying in the organ business that if an organ looks good, it automatically sounds good, at least to the public,” Neutel says. “And that’s eight-tenths of the battle. But there are so many organs you don’t see because they are built behind screens, so then that organ gets evaluated only on what people hear.”

It’s a fact that 99 percent of all Reuter organs are built in Lawrence. Reuter brings in raw metal for its engineers to melt down and shape into the company’s proprietary pipes. The company brings in its own wood to build wood pipes, wind chests and structural framing. Reuter builds its own keyboards and some of the electrical components. The company handles its own engineering, milling, casting and pipe-making. It also makes its own wind chests, consoles and casework, and does its own finishing, assembly and installation.


Casting sheets of pipe metal.

Except for the blower that provides the air for the organ, everything else is built in-house at the company’s Northwest Lawrence facility.

Perhaps one of the most fascinating and least-known elements of creating a pipe organ is “voicing” the pipes. Reuter has a team of voicers that literally gives voice to the pipes, which, in effect, is teaching the pipes to sing. The members of the company’s voicing team are all professional musicians. They prepare every pipe for every organ and produce balanced ensemble sound with consistent speech and tone.


At work in the case department.

“What is really neat about this business, and I constantly remind our employees, is that we have been in business 100 years,” Neutel says. “We have built about 2,500 new organs and worked on at least 5,000 organs that we have refurbished and/or enhanced. So you take that and all the organs that are out there, and all the lives they touch every Sunday—it is just mind-boggling.”

Music enthusiasts refer to Nashville as the home of country music. Memphis is the sound of rhythm and blues. New Orleans gave birth to jazz.

Antonio Stradivari created the finest violins the world has ever known. The early mass production of rock ’n’ roll can be attributed to the Tin Pan Alley. Soul music was derived from African American gospel music being sung in Southern churches. And thanks to Reuter, the city of Lawrence, Kansas, may just be the home of the church pipe organ.


Construction progressing in the assembly room.

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