The E. M. Skinner pipe organ that graces our sanctuary is one of the largest in the region, comprising some 115 ranks and over 7,000 pipes. The organ is at the center of Festival Worship’s music: on an average Sunday, at least a third of the service employs the organ. Whether accompanying hymns and anthems, or in voluntaries marking the beginning and end of worship, Old South wouldn’t feel the same without the soul-stirring, room-shaking sensation of the E.M. Skinner organ.
Originally built in Boston for the Municipal Auditorium of Saint Paul, Minnesota by some of the most skilled artisans of the era, the organ — Skinner Op. 308 — was inaugurated to great fanfare in 1921. Like many similar instruments, however, it was used less and less with the advent of radio and motion pictures, ultimately suffering decades of neglect and atrophy. Op. 308 ultimately made its way back to Boston and to Old South in what has been described as “a most daring and magnificent undertaking.”
Learning of the instrument’s availability mere weeks before the Municipal Auditorium was to be razed in 1982 (with the organ still inside it!), Old South resolved to undertake the enormous task of rescuing and relocating the organ. A salvage team quickly formed to remove and store the instrument, consisting of crews from the firms of Nelson Barden Associates of Boston, A. Thompson-Allen Co., and Foley-Baker Inc.
With the heroic removal effort completed, attention turned to how the organ might be installed in the church. Consideration was given to housing the instrument in the rear gallery, but Old South was ready to have music take pride of place in the chancel alongside the clergy. As the instrument was originally designed for a quite different space than our own, a variety of tonal and mechanical changes were necessary to fit the Skinner to its new home at Copley Square.
Such a job being beyond the capabilities of local restorers, the firm of Casavant Frères, Ltée. (Stainte-Hyacinth, Québec, Canada) was chosen to manage the reconfiguration and installation. Around the same time, Old South’s existing organ was sold back to the Reuter Organ Co., who reworked it for installation in St. John's Lutheran Church, Winter Park, Florida.
Even after Op. 308 safely was ensconced at Old South, additional rebuilding and restoration was necessary to return the organ to optimal condition. Nelson Barden Associates began the rebuilding program in 1986, made formal in 1987 under consultants Jack Bethards, Joseph Dzeda, and Jason McKown, with guidance from officers of Old South. This particular campaign of work saw completion in June 1990, in time for the American Guild of Organists National Convention in Boston. In 1993, the Antiphonal organ received all new pipework from Austin Organs, Inc. Nelson Barden Associates renovated the console in 1999, installing a new solid-state combination action.
The restoration of the organ, now stewarded by curator Jonathan Ambrosino, is ongoing.