It was a factory of fabulous fantasy and musical marvels, whose creations continue to reverberate around many of the great concert halls and churches of the nation.
And now the workshop where some of Australia’s finest organs were conceived and constructed – like the world’s largest mechanical tracker-action pipe organ in the concert hall of Sydney Opera House, the chancel choir organ in Sydney’s St Mary’s Cathedral and the spectacular 3000-pipe organ of Perth Concert Hall – has finally been sold.
“It’s the end of an era,” said Ronald Sharp, the legendary British Empire Medal-winning self-taught maker of 20 of the nation’s iconic organs. “It is a shame in a way as I had everything in that workshop I ever needed to make organs.
“But in another way, I’m not so sad because no one is interested any more in organs and pianos. They’ve been left in the past. Times have changed.”
Mr Sharp, now aged 90, bought the 520-square-metre industrial property in Mortdale in 1940 after he was commissioned to build an organ for St Mary’s Cathedral. He lived in a house next door until 20 years ago when the land was rezoned for industrial only and he moved to live in Oatley.
He continued working at the factory, however, whenever he wasn’t working on constructing some of the biggest organs in situ, such as at the Opera House where he began his task shortly after the architect Jørn Utzon left in 1966.
Just like Utzon, he also ran into trouble, refusing pleas to cut his organ design in half so the Opera House ceiling could be lowered, but being forced to accept help from European organ makers so it could be finished in 10 years instead of the 20 years he’d planned. Its cost also blew out from an estimated $400,000 to $1.4 million.
“When I started, it was intended to be the greatest organ ever,” he said, on the eve of the auction of his workshop. “But I knew it would take 20 years as similar organs in Europe had taken 15 years.
“But the government and management wanted it up and running to make themselves look good. So they got people in to help me finish. It wasn’t finished as I’d wanted, but I’ve been looking after it for years, and have been able to refine it as I went.”
His historic workshop on Herne Street was auctioned on Saturday, December 14, and attracted 11 registered bidders before being sold for $1.4 million, $300,000 more than its reserve price. Mr Sharp watched the auction being streamed over Skype by his son.
“He was delighted,” said the auctioneer Michael Virley, director of MVP Auctions.
“Despite it being an emotional day, he knew it was time to sell. And he even quipped afterwards, ‘Couldn’t you get any more?’
“He wasn’t expecting such a huge result, so it’s happy days all round. The machinery used to craft some the finest organs in Australia will be sold separately. A great result for all concerned.”
Agent Dean Sperotto, of PRDnationwide Harvey Oatley, said it was a welcome outcome. The property itself was made up of a series of sheds, storage rooms, a shipping container and the former residence, but it was on level land close to Hurstville CBD.
“The buildings are packed with equipment and wood and it’s pretty certain the buyer will knock it down and rebuild,” said Mr Sperotto. “But it does have such an interesting history, and Mr Sharp is a fascinating character.
“He’s very intelligent and determined and there’s an awful lot to him.”
Mr Sharp, who first became interested in organs when taking lessons as a boy, worked as an electrician and mechanic before starting to build instruments. His organs are also in Canberra’s Church of St John the Baptist and its School of Music, Wollongong Town Hall, Knox Grammar School in Wahroonga on Sydney’s north shore, Ormond College at the University of Melbourne, Monash University in Melbourne and Sydney University’s Great Hall.
The smallest organ he ever built, a portative organ that can be strapped onto the side of the player, who manipulates the bellows with one hand and fingers the keys with the other, is on display at Sydney’s Powerhouse Museum.
In his spare time, Mr Sharp built a plane, and wrote the book Gravity, Time and Consciousness.
He no longer works, but spends his time listening to classical music. “I think it’s the one thing that keeps me alive,” he said. “Life is about harmony rather than dissonance.”
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