Nonprofit hopes to restore Denfeld’s school organ

The Denfeld Historic Organ Restoration and Preservation Alliance suspects it will cost “seven figures” to restore the decades-old instrument.

woman holding organ pipe
Carol Donahue of Duluth explains the parts of one of the hundreds of pipes that are a part of a George Kilgen & Son pipe organ at Denfeld High School on Thursday, March 2, in Duluth.
Clint Austin / Duluth News Tribune

DULUTH — A group of volunteers hopes to breathe new life into a dilapidated pipe organ mostly hidden behind the walls of an historic school auditorium.

The nonprofit Denfeld Historic Organ Restoration and Preservation Alliance aims to raise enough money to restore the decades-old organ at Denfeld High School in West Duluth.

“If you had a Stradivarius violin in your possession, would you throw it away?” Carol Donahue, chair of the alliance’s board, asked rhetorically, referring to the legendarily well-made and sought-after violins.

The organ was built in 1920 and formally installed at Denfeld in 1927, but it hasn’t been played in years. Even then, only a portion of its 2,000-plus pipes worked properly.

empty auditorium
The auditorium where the pipe organ is located at Denfeld.
Clint Austin / Duluth News Tribune

The organ was last played at full or nearly full strength, so to speak, at school graduation ceremonies in the 1980s, Donahue and other alliance members said.


The organ occupies five rooms around the school’s auditorium. There’s a “swell” room and a room for percussion instruments tucked away near a balcony, “great” and “choir” rooms behind the opposite balcony, and an “echo” room over audience members’ left shoulders. Each holds pipes meant to replicate different instruments: french horns and oboes in the swell, for instance; marimbas and harps in the percussion; tubas and clarions in the great; violas and clarinets in the choir; and violins in the echo – all powered by a compressor that sits in a sixth room in the school’s basement.

historic pipe organ at Denfeld
Carol Donahue talks about the different groups of pipes that form the swell.
Clint Austin / Duluth News Tribune

The only obvious sign the organ is there, though, is its “console,” a boxy device to the right of the auditorium stage that resembles an overgrown player piano. If the organ were operational, a performer could use the console’s three keyboards, 32 foot pedals, and row after row of knobs and buttons to produce thunderous symphonies.

But all of that equipment is largely unusable, according to Donahue. Some pipes in the swell room are missing or damaged, and the wind chests there – which hold compressed air pumped up from the basement – have leaks that can make some of the remaining pipes play even when no one is pressing a key on the console below. The wind chests in the choir and echo rooms have been damaged by leaking water and will need to be replaced, according to consultants hired by the alliance, and the bulk of the pipes in the choir room must be restored, as well.

Most of that damage happened gradually as water leaked through the school’s roof, corroding the pipes inside and rotting the wood that holds them in place. Beyond that, the organ and the rooms that contain it were occasionally vandalized.

woman at keyboard
Carol Donahue demonstrates how to play a pipe organ on the current console installed at Denfeld High School. The console is not the original one that was installed with the organ.
Clint Austin / Duluth News Tribune

The auditorium that houses the organ is an architectural marvel in its own right that was designed to be a community hub when it was built. It’s also the figurative heart of the school, according to Tom Tusken, Denfeld’s principal, who taught for years before that and graduated from the school in 1990. The organ is a foundational piece of the auditorium, he said Friday.

“Decades and decades of Denfeld graduates had that pipe organ play for various events in their high school career. It is now, and has been, silent,” Tusken said Friday. “Almost like we are missing the soundtrack to their high school experience because it's not there to provide the background.”

pipes in box
Several groups of pipes have been removed in preparation for restoration of the pipe organ.
Clint Austin / Duluth News Tribune

A hefty price tag

The restoration that Donahue and other alliance members envision would be extensive and expensive.


Each of the organ’s pipes was handmade. A true restoration, in alliance members’ estimation, would replace damaged or missing parts with faithful reproductions in the style of George Kilgen & Son, a now-defunct organ maker.

That also means replacing the console, which is itself a replacement for the original Kilgen console that was lost or damaged who-knows-how-many years ago. Alliance members have a Kilgen console waiting for them in St. Louis, Missouri, Donahue said.

Beyond that, there’s hundreds of feet of electrical wiring, some of which is still insulated with cloth, and piping that needs to be fixed or replaced.

organ pipes
Racks of pipes form the swell portion of a George Kilgen & Son at Denfeld.
Clint Austin / Duluth News Tribune

Alliance members are waiting on a formal estimate for the restoration, but Donahue guessed the work they envision would cost “seven figures.”

They’ve raised about $20,000 so far, $5,000 of which is a grant from the Minnesota Historical Society that paid for the cost estimate and evaluation of the organ’s current condition. They’re hoping to secure hundreds of thousands more from the historical society, plus whatever they can solicit from businesses and the public.

“We’ve got our work cut out for us,” Donahue said.

details of metal organ pipes
Details of the a group of pipes show the key and type of pipe. Vox means that the sound of the pipe mimics human voice.
Clint Austin / Duluth News Tribune

Alliance members hope to have the organ operational by 2027, in time for the 100th anniversary of its dedication.

Donahue, an accomplished organist who teaches the craft to others at First United Methodist Church and other places of worship in the Duluth area, might not be able to play it herself, though. Shoulder surgeries, a hip replacement, and arthritis that keeps her from fully closing her hand make it difficult.


“But it doesn’t bother me,” she told the News Tribune. “You’ve got to let things go. Even if I don’t get to see it, I just want to make sure it gets off the ground and it blows like crazy.”

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Joe Bowen is an award-winning reporter at the Duluth News Tribune. He covers schools and education across the Northland.

You can reach him at:
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