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The Organs of Old South Church

The organ is so central to worship at Old South Church that it is easy to take for granted. Yet on an average Sunday, at least a third of the Festival Worship service uses the Sanctuary organ (E.M. Skinner Organ, Op. 308) in some fashion; singing hymns or accompanying the Choir would be inconceivable without it, and Old South wouldn’t feel like Old South without the soul-stirring, room-shaking music that the E.M. Skinner organ provides.  The warm and engaging tone of the Æolian-Skinner organ (Op. 896) in the Gordon Chapel is also featured regularly during Old South’s First Worship service.

The beauty of any pipe organ is its wonderfully low-tech engineering. Unlike telephone systems, computers or any other modern technology – all of which are designed to become obsolete – organs are almost infinitely renewable. In the words of Joseph Dzeda, Curator of Organs at Yale University, “As long as God makes sheep and glue, we can restore organs.”

It was a daring, expensive and magnificent undertaking that brought the E.M. Skinner Organ (Op. 308) to Old South’s Sanctuary, perhaps even more so, given how much secondary effort had to be expended so soon after installation. Thanks to the superb work of the Barden crew at that time, and the expert guidance of consultants and church members, the organ has emerged as a paragon of stability and easy maintenance. This does not mean that it is maintenance-free; like a Church, it needs its equivalent of roof and furnace repair, cleaning, overhaul, restoration. But a Church soon to celebrate its 350th anniversary understands longevity. In its incarnation at Old South, Op. 308 is a mere adolescent, but one whose long life can be guaranteed, with the right attitude and good work.

Both of Old South’s organs, (the Sanctuary organ and the Chapel organ), broadly speaking, are in solid shape. The Sanctuary organ has proven remarkably stable in the years since Nelson Barden Associates completed a large campaign of work (1987-1990) that followed the rebuild by Casavant/Hokans-Knapp (1983-1984). For various reasons, that campaign could not address certain areas, which have been and will continue to be, areas of ongoing attention.

The Sanctuary Organ: E.M. Skinner Op. 308 and Others

List of Sanctuary Organ Stops (PDF)

In 1875, the “New” Old South Church was equipped with a three-manual (three keyboards) Hutchings organ, sited in the gallery. This was replaced in 1915 with Ernest M. Skinner Organ Company’s Op. 231, a four-manual with a 32-foot metal Gamba and wooden Bombarde, a Physharmonica, and the full complement of Skinner specialty voices. Like the Hutchings, the Skinner was also installed in the gallery. For many years the eminent Dr. Carl McKinley presided over this instrument.

In the late 1960s, Dr. McKinley’s successor, Alfred Nash Patterson, sought a new instrument, which was eventually commissioned in 1968 from the Reuter Organ Company of Lawrence, Kansas and installed in 1969. This, too, was a four-manual organ, with Great, Swell, Choir, Positiv, Bombarde and Pedal divisions. The two Skinner 32-foot stops were retained, but all else was sold to Virgil Fox for use at his home in Englewood, New Jersey. (Eventually the pipes and parts were broken up for sale; the Kleine Erzähler and Flute Celeste found their way first to restorers in Detroit, and then eventually back to Old South via Nelson Barden.)

In the early 1980s, under the leadership of then-organist David Garth Worth, an effort was begun to return the Skinner sound to Old South Church. Skinner Op. 308, built in 1921 for the Municipal Auditorium of Saint Paul, Minnesota, had suffered the fate of most municipal organs of its day. Although these organs opened to great fanfare, the advent of radio and sound pictures caused such instruments to be used less and less.

Old South learned of the instrument’s availability mere weeks before the auditorium was to be razed and decided to act. A consortium was quickly formed to remove and store the instrument. The crew consisted of the A. Thompson-Allen Co., Curators of Organs at Yale University; Foley-Baker Inc. from Tolland, Connecticut; and Nelson Barden Associates of Boston.

Once the heroic removal effort was completed, attention turned to how the organ could be installed in Boston. Some consideration was given to retaining the gallery arrangement, but Old South was ready to have music join with clergy in the chancel area. Such a job being beyond the capabilities of the New England restorers, other vendors were explored, and ultimately Casavant Frères, Ltée. of St. Hyacinth, Québec was chosen, in a two-contract arrangement with that firm’s regional representatives, Henry Hokans and Richard Knapp. The Reuter organ was sold back to Reuter in the early 1980s; Reuter took it back to Kansas and repackaged it for St. John's Lutheran Church, Winter Park, Florida.

Nelson Barden Associates began a rebuilding program in 1986, made formal in 1987 under consultants Jack Bethards, Joseph Dzeda and Jason McKown, and church guidance from organist Frederick A. MacArthur, treasurer Tom Wardell, and member Wayne Davis. 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. Nelson Barden Associates renovated the console in 1999, installing a new solid-state combination action.

The Gordon Chapel Organ: Æolian-Skinner Op. 896, 1933

List of Chapel Organ Stops (PDF)

The Gordon Chapel was constructed in 1932 as a part of the parish house project that also replaced the original tower with the present one. The Æolian-Skinner Organ Company was contracted in 1932 for a new organ of special, small design. Due to limited space, 14 sets of pipes were ingeniously installed into inhospitably-shaped chambers. Despite the cramped conditions, the organ’s warm and engaging tone was always considered something of a triumph. Dr. McKinley was so delighted with the results that he wrote an article praising the organ in the May 1933 issue of American Organist. Originally a three-manual instrument, the original console (gutted, but with its original ivory hardware) still lives in the parish house basement.

In 1983 this instrument was rebuilt by Casavant Frères, Ltée. A new, two-manual console was fitted; Great, Choir and Pedal made unenclosed; Choir stops combined onto the Great manual; and several tonal changes made. The organ was releathered at this time, one chest converted to Schwimmer winding, reservoirs overhauled in the manner of the sanctuary organ, and a few other mechanical modifications made.

The 1983 work left much of the organ uncomfortably loud and bright, at least to our ears today. In 2007, a tonal renovation was completed whose goal was to return all available pipes to their original locations and voicing. This project removed two of the added mixtures, replicated the Gemshorn treble and Great Twelfth (thus permitting the original Grave Mixture to be heard), and re-regulated all stops. The organ is now as it was tonally in 1933, with three exceptions: the Great, Choir and Pedal remain unenclosed; the Swell Vox Humana (now in the Sanctuary organ) holds the Casavant 111 Plein Jeu, revoiced as a two-rank mixture; and the Choir Dulciana is absent.

For this project, installation and racking work was executed by Spencer Organ Company, new pipes were made by Thomas Anderson (former head of the Æolian-Skinner pipe shop), voicing was by Daniel Kingman, Trompette renovation by Broome & Co., all managed, contracted and tonally finished by Jonathan Ambrosino. Concurrently, Nelson Barden Associates rebuilt the blower, replacing the original D.C. motor with a vintage 3-phase A.C. model. Finally, some structural repairs were made to parts of the organ whose wall attachments had failed, the swell shutter action was adjusted, and the electro-pneumatic relay received a few modifications.