By Jef Rietsma
A Vicksburg-area man has successfully managed to intertwine his love for architecture with his affinity for the pipe organ.
The result is William Mollema’s 29th Street house, which easily falls into the you-have-to-see-it-to-believe-it category.
When Mollema bought the 20-acre property in the 1970s, every aspect of what would be the house sitting there today – a house he built himself – was designed to accommodate a theater organ and its 5,000 individual pipes.
Obviously, there’s a backstory as intriguing as the house itself. It starts with Mollema’s introduction into the world of music.
“I studied piano and organ with a fellow who also happened to be an organ technician and tuner, and he owned a music store where I worked through high school,” said Mollema, a native of Owosso. “Fast forward to 1961 and I was a freshman at Kalamazoo College, where part of my working scholarship was taking care of musical instruments, particularly (the organ) at Stetson Chapel.”
Mollema, who has been playing keyboards since he was 4 years old, explains how his fascination with a pipe organ housed at his church in Owosso would contribute to a career centering on the instrument.
“My interest in it had been piqued in the Rube-Goldberg nature mechanically, not so much musically,” the 79-year-old Mollema said. “I came to eventually play the organ through working with my mentor, the fellow who had the music store. He was also a technician, so I learned to tune and maintain pipe organs from him. Then I continued that while I was at college through a working grant as part of a scholarship.”
He would go on to complete a fruitful 30-year career as an organ salesman/installer/repairman/tuner for Chicago-based Wicks Organ Company.
The story behind the house begins with a double-A-frame church in Grand Rapids in which Mollema installed an organ in the early 1970s. When Mollema bought the 29th Street property, the compelling look of that Grand Rapids church stuck in his mind as he drafted blueprints. In short, Mollema designed the house with acoustics in mind and accommodations for the subsequent installation of the pipes.
He started construction in spring 1976, moving in two years later. Meanwhile, after collecting pipes and other organ pieces beginning during his high school years, Mollema in the mid-1990s finally completed the meticulous task of installing the pipes and other components and hooking it all up to the massive theater organ console, centrally positioned in his open-air family room.
The tallest pipes, incidentally, are 16 feet in height; the smallest about the size of a pencil. Mollema’s home organ requires the boost of a 50-horsepower motor housed in his basement.
“Everybody in the neighborhood knows when I start it up because the lights all go dim momentarily throughout the neighborhood,” he joked. “Kidding aside, you can’t hear it outside very much, believe it or not, though you’d be more likely to hear the bass end than you would the treble end, of course.”
A lifelong bachelor, Mollema is a member of the American Theater Organ Society. He said his favorite genre to play is what movie patrons would have heard accompanying a silent picture show back in the 1920s, for example.
Regarding the “Scotts Fox” sign embedded in his front yard, Mollema provided an explanation.
“It’s a nickname and the reason for it is when I started building this house, all my friends knew that I was going to have a theater organ in it, so the Fox reference was a tribute to the Fox Theater organ (in Detroit),” he said. “Despite how close I live to Vicksburg, I have a Scotts mailing address so that’s the story behind Scotts Fox.”
The sign’s letters, incidentally, are actual theater marquee letters from Chicago.
On the web: theaterorgans.com/mi/scotts
By Jef Rietsma