A Breath of Fresh Air for Heinz Chapel

Issue Date: 
June 1, 2015

Heinz Chapel’s huge red oak doors, which have been closed for five months, will swing open today, enabling the 76-year-old chapel to resume receiving visitors; holding summer weddings, memorial services, and concerts; and offering guided tours.

The doors, each weighing 800 pounds, closed Jan. 5 for the installation of a new climate-control system. The state-of-the-art air handler and chilled water lines will control the building’s humidity and keep the air at a temperature between 72 to 80 degrees. 

Gone is the old air-regulation system with its outdated controls. Gone are original steam heat radiators, which frequently caused stifling hot temperatures in the chapel during winter months. In their place is a new air handler, installed by SSM Industries, Inc., and housed in an expanded basement room of its own. The updated system is more energy efficient, running at various speeds, depending on need, versus the old system’s motor, which ran continuously at 100 percent. About 2,160 linear feet of ductwork was installed to house the system. In all, ten tons of materials, including steel pipes and metal from the old boilers, were hauled away to a local recycling center during the upgrade.

“Mind boggling” was how Pat Gibbons, the chapel’s longtime director, described the project, which included five months of dust and tarp-covered pews. Gibbons is especially happy that the new climate-control system will help preserve the French Gothic chapel’s world-class Reuter pipe organ.

“A constant change in temperature wasn’t good for the organ, and it became impossible for us to tune it during the summer months. But now this system will help preserve it,” she said, adding that consistent temperatures will also help protect the oak wood throughout the chapel.   

David Richards, founder and owner of Allegheny Pipe Organ Company in Valencia, Pa., worked with his crew to carefully dismantle the pipe organ in January to move it out of the contractors’ way. About 4,200 lead and wooden pipes—some two-feet thick, some skinny as a pencil—were stored in wooden packing crates. Richards returned in May to unpack the pipes and give them a thorough cleaning, before reassembling the organ.

“With a temperature change of just one or two degrees Fahrenheit, you can hear the difference in the sound,” said Richards, as he picked up a pipe covered with black dust despite the tarps used to cover them. 

Because the chapel hosts about 1,000 events annually, Richards tunes the pipe organ eight or nine times a year. Now he’ll be able to tune it over the summer as well.

Doug McCord, the pipe-organ expert who helped install the instrument 21 years ago, traveled to Pittsburgh from Kansas to lend his expertise during the five-month project. First up for cleaning were the organ chambers, which were then hooked up  to wiring. Next, the organ was played to blow air through 4,000 valves and remove dust from the wind chests, which Richards calls “the heart of the instrument.” Next, half of the pipes were reinstalled, and the organ tuned; then, the remainder of the pipes installed, and the organ tuned again.

The community is invited to a free Grand Reopening Concert at 7:30 p.m. June 18. The chapel’s resident ensemble, OvreArts, will perform contemporary works for chamber orchestra, as well as pieces composed by Theodore Finney, the Heinz Chapel Choir’s inaugural conductor.

“I’ve seen a lot of improvements here,” remarked Gibbons, referring to new flooring that was installed in 1989 and refurbished in 2002, the addition of a wheelchair-accessible entrance in 1996, as well as new interior and exterior lighting in 2000. “But I’m so grateful this project was completed during my time as director. It’s the most important. It preserves the fabric of the building.”