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Music to Illinois’ ears: Instruments made here shipped around the world

Little about the utilitarian brick building on the city’s industrial Near West Side hints at what’s made inside.

Here, where freight trucks and elevated trains rumble by all day, it’s common for passersby to ask: “Do you really make harps in there?”

Yes, Lyon & Healy, does make harps. And not just any ol’ harps, but arguably, the world’s finest instruments.

The Chicago Symphony Orchestra has two gold-leafed Prince William Concert Grand harps — each valued at about $93,000. People come from the farthest reaches of the planet — South America, Europe, Singapore, Tasmania — to buy them.

And Lyon & Healy isn’t alone. In factories across Illinois, craftsmen are quietly building some of America’s most storied musical instruments, including violins and even pipe organs.

An employee at the Lyon & Healy harp factory works on the “action,” a mechanical device made up of some 1,500 parts that allows the harpist to control the instrument’s pitch. | Brian Rich/Sun-Times

MADE IN ILLINOIS: The products and people that make our state tick

Bostonians George W. Lyon and Patrick J. Healy came to Chicago in the soggy spring of 1864. They stared out at a mud-caked Clark Street downtown, with its rickety wooden buildings, and saw — possibility.

“It was a cow town back then,” says Steve Fritzmann, Lyon & Healy’s national sales manager. “But they saw the railroads. They saw the future, the distribution. It was a brilliant move.”

What began as a sheet music shop at the corner of Washington and Clark grew into a manufacturer of everything from mandolins to violins to guitars and, beginning in 1889, harps.

An employee completes the chisel work on the slot in the harp’s column. | Brian Rich/Sun-Times

Today, Lyon & Healy makes about 1,000 harps annually, much like they were made 130 years ago — mostly by hand. They fashion the triangular instrument’s swooping lines from Sitka spruce and maple, the most delicate floral designs brought to life with a chisel just three millimeters wide at its tip.

On the lower floors of the factory, tiny hammers tap, circular saws buzz and industrial fans whir. A thin layer of sawdust covers everything. On the top floor — the showroom — row after row of instruments gleam beneath subdued spotlights. The only sound: the beguiling flutter of a Lyon & Healy harp.

The finished product on display in the factory’s showroom on the top floor. | Brian Rich/Sun-Times

It’s a sound that is slowly slipping away. There are only four major harp makers left in the world, and two of them focus on more basic student-level models, Fritzmann said.

The harp “action” in final assembly before being mounted in the frame of the instrument. | Brian Rich/Sun-Times

The Godfather of Violins

Some three miles to the east, the theme music from the movie “The Godfather” periodically floats out of Gary Garavaglia’s workshop on Michigan Avenue.

It’s a signal that the master luthier has finished a violin, viola or cello — and is playing the only piece he knows well in order to double check his handiwork.

At Lyon & Healy, 90 or so sets of hands will touch a harp during production. At William Harris Lee & Co., it’s just Garavaglia or one of the company’s other 17 luthiers who cut, scrape, sand, glue and varnish the instruments.

A craftsman uses a woodworking gouge to complete the decorative work on the base of the column of a harp. | Brian Rich/Sun-Times

“You start carving with hand planes and scrapers,” says Lisa Zimmerman, the company’s general manager. “The curve of the instrument is not bent, it’s carved, and the scroll — that’s all done by hand. That’s why they are all so unique.”

William Harris Lee & Co. instruments can be found in orchestras worldwide, Zimmermann said. They’ve been in business since 1978, and always in the Fine Arts Building.

Master luthier Gary Garavaglia, of William Harris Lee &; Co. at his workspace inside the Fine Arts Building, 410 South Michigan Ave.

Master luthier Gary Garavaglia, of William Harris Lee & Co., at his workspace inside the Fine Arts Building, 410 South Michigan Ave. | Santiago Covarrubias/Sun-Times file photo

The demand is strong for violins, violas and cellos — and that means the company could use more luthiers. Bending over a gouged and chipped wooden bench for hours at a time in dim light isn’t for everyone. It takes Garavaglia, in his early 70s, about 150 hours to make a violin; 250 to make a cello. And Garavaglia works seven days a week.

“It’s hard to get people,” Zimmerman said. “It’s a lot of training. People have to love to work with their hands.”

Master luthier Gary Garavaglia, of William Harris Lee &; Co., explains how to build a violin.

Master luthier Gary Garavaglia, of William Harris Lee & Co., explains how to build a violin. | Santiago Covarrubias/Sun-Times file photo

Piping up

Travel 280 miles to the south to Highland, near St. Louis, and you’ll discover one of America’s great pipe organ builders. Even if you’re not familiar with the Wicks name, chances are you’ve heard one played. Churches, concert halls, universities, 1920s movie palaces — even pizza parlors — have all made space for a Wicks organ.

“It literally had bells and whistles and gongs and sirens,” owner Scott Wick said of the old movie palace organs.

The company, started in 1906, has built about 6,500 over 112 years — from a portable model that can fit in a box the size of a standard upright piano to ones with pipes that stretch 30 feet into the air.

In the company’s heyday — the 1950s and ’60s — Wicks employed 100 people and built 40 to 50 organs a year.

“Now, there’s not even that many being built in the whole country,” Wick said.

Wicks organ

A Wicks organ console from a church in Huntingburg, Indiana, that was recently restored in Illinois. | Facebook

Blame the drop in attendance at churches nationwide — and a preference for other, less expensive instruments. A new pipe organ starts at about $150,000, Wick says, estimating that he now makes one to two a year.

Much of the company’s business now comes from repairing or tuning organs that are still in use and refurbishing ones removed from churches slated for closure.

“I’ve filled up a warehouse full of used instruments,” Wick said.