Boston Organ Studio

The First Church of Christ, Scientist

Aeolian-Skinner Organ Co., Opus 1203, 1952


The Mother Church and headquarters for Christian Science worldwide, the original Romanesque Revival building opened in 1894 on an unusual trapezoidal lot.  Quickly outgrown, the adjacent Extension of 1904-1906 seats some 3,000.  Architect Charles Brigham’s original Ottoman-inspired design was substantially altered by Solon Spencer Beman along classical Renaissance lines, dispensing with plans for corner towers and a minaret-cum-campanile.  The result owes much to Venice’s Santa Maria della Salute.  A belt of New Hampshire granite around the Extension’s base cleverly ties the two disparate buildings together.  I.M. Pei & Partners with Araldo Cossutta fashioned the surrounding administrative buildings and reflecting pool in the early 1970s.  The 1934 publishing house building houses the Mary Baker Eddy Library and its famous mapparium.  - Ross Wood

from The Diapason, July 1952:

A magnificent new Aeolian-Skinner organ in the Mother Church, the First Church of Christ, Scientist, in Boston, was placed in service for the first time June 1, with Ruth Barrett Phelps, organist of the Mother Church, at the console. This event followed a period of more than a year and a half of construction devoted to the building and installation of the colossal instrument.

The instrument includes many features the most outstanding of which is the unprecedented free use of mixtures and other compound stops. The organ contains 235 ranks of pipes, totaling 13,389 pipes and on this basis may be considered to be the largest church organ in the United States. There are 147 independent speaking stops, with twenty-two borrowed stops and three pedal extensions which makes a grand total of 172 speaking stops. Twenty-one stops, totaling about twenty-nine ranks, were retained from the old organ.

The tonal design of the organ is the work of the Boston organ architect Lawrence I. Phelps. Mr. Phelps, who also supervised the various phases of the work was employed for several years as a technician and voicer and later as a tonal finisher by Aeolian-Skinner. More recently he worked with Walter Holtkamp of Cleveland in the same capacity. For more than two and a half years Mr. Phelps has been employed by the Mother Church, devoting his entire time to directing the reconstruction of its two organs, one in the spacious extension edifice of the Mother Church and the other in the original edifice. The following information concerning the design of the new organ in the extension edifice has been provided by Mr. Phelps.

Of the seven manual divisions the swell, choir and solo are enclosed. All of the organ except the solo is installed in one large loft across the front of the auditorium. This loft is approximately seventy-five feet wide, ten feet deep and about sixty feet high. The average height of the main part of the organ is about twenty-five feet, although the facade towers about fifty feet above the floor of the organ loft. The solo is located in an especially prepared chamber, high in the northeast tower of the building, and is heard through a circular opening which pierces the center of the pendentive area to the left of and well above the main organ.
The new four-manual console has a total of 197 drawknobs and thirty-six tablets. The choir and positiv divisions play normally on the lowest manual, although the necessary couplers and separation devices are provided so that the two divisions are completely independent of each other and may be played at the same time on different manuals. The same is true of the hauptwerk and great, which normally play on the second manual. The swell and bombarde divisions play from the third and fourth manual respectively. The solo organ is a so-called “floating” division. It is available on any manual and the pedals and is the only division which operates through a key relay. Only the enclosed divisions of the organ have sub and super couplers.
The combination pistons are as follows: Hauptwerk and great, 15 pistons; swell, 10 pistons; choir and positiv, 15; pedal, 10; bombarde, 5; solo, 7; general, 10. There are also free combination pistons which are set by means of a recorder board and which do not operate the stopknobs. Normally the free combinations cut off all stops and couplers that may be drawn at the console, but a device has been provided making it possible add any drawn combination to whatever may be set on any free combination piston. The general, pedal and certain other selected pistons from the other manual divisions are duplicated by toe studs. All of the couplers to the pedal are provided with reversible pistons, as are all unison intermanual couplers.
A unique feature among the accessories is a crescendo pedal which is completely adjustable, with five separate crescendo setups available through the use of a five-button crescendo selector. All the other usual accessories are available.
The organ is designed especially to meet the unique requirements of the music of the Mother Church. These range from the accompanying of a vast audience in the singing of the hymns to the exacting requirements of radio and recording work. This results in the necessity of producing a well-ordered musical performance under radically changing acoustical conditions; also the performance of tbe great variety of music from the organ's rich heritage in a manner which may be considered to be stylistically appropriate. Even so, no attempt has been made to imitate slavishly the work of any period of organ building or of any particular organ builder.
The major flue chorus of the organ is naturally that of the great. Basically the chorus consists of the 8-ft. principal, 4ft. prestant and the full mixture, these being topped by the scharf. All of these pipes are equipped with mouths which have a width equivalent to a full two-seventh of the circumference of the pipe. Inasmuch as the use of two-seventh mouthed principals has seldom enjoyed unquestionable success in this country, it was decided to adopt the very ancient and time-honored device known as a keychamber, which has always accompanied the two-seventh mouth in its most successful applications, to the modern windchest. Thus each pipe of the 8-ft. and 4-ft. stop was provided with individual key chambers (perhaps in this application more correctly called expansion chambers). Later it was proved necessary to apply the same principle to several stops in the hauptwerk, where, although the principal chorus is equipped with one-fourth mouths, expansion chambers were found necessary in order to produce a quick response, while retaining a certain ease of speech typical of the best low-pressure work.
To make possible the best results from the extensive array of compound stops, G. Donald Harrison, president of the Aeolian-Skinner Company, whose cooperation has been a vital factor contributing to the overwhelming success of this entire project, worked out a system together with the designer of applying large key chambers to the regular Aeolian-Skinner windchest. This makes it possible for all the pipes comprising one note in a compound stop to stand on a common channel, thus receiving their wind from a common source. This also provided a much larger channel for this purpose than is usually available on the modern pitman chest. This system for accommodating compound stops was used in one form or another for all twenty-six of the harmonic corroborating compound stops. Because of this it has been possible to finish these stops in such a way that they evidence a singing quality and a blending ability not always found today.
The hauptwerk is a moderately scaled very lightly voiced division standing in the center and at the top of the main structure immediately under the wheel window. Emphasis has been placed on incisive, clear speech and marked contrast in color rather than on power or great variation in strength between the stops. Because of this and its favorable location this division exerts a strong influence even when used against or together with the full great. The sesquialtera is composed of softly-voiced, small-scale principal pipes. The scale of the rankett was especially developed; the sound is rather distantly related to that of the vox humana. The trompette is of a scale developed by Mr. Harrison about two years ago using small English shallots; the tone is free and not the least aggressive.
The great is located on the same level as the hauptwerk and to the left. It is a strong full-bodied division containing the strongest flue work of the entire organ. As mentioned above, the principals are equipped with two-seventh mouths. The scaling is large. The pipes are generously winded. The two 16-ft. mutations are fluty and soft. The 32-ft. quintade is a larger scale than the 16-ft. quintadena on the hauptwerk, but it fills a similar office for the graver great. It is a thoroughly usable stop adding gravity without thickness. The two rehabilitated open flutes are typical of the best examples of their species. The scharf is the crowning glory not only of the great but of the whole organ. The cornet is really a complete secondary principal chorus about the same scale as the principals but with one-fourth mouths.
The enclosure for the swell is centrally located in the organ loft. It occupies a floor space approximately twenty feet by six feet eight inches and rises against the rear wall to a height of about twenty-two feet. Actually the hauptwerk windchests form the top of the swell-box. The full swell is about equal in strength to the great, though of course there is a sharp contrast in color. The sesquialtera is voiced equal to the diapason in strength as are the plein jeu and cymbale. The three-rank fourniture is a small, moderately voiced mixture. The chorus reeds are of the French type, which have become virtually a Harrison trademark, although several alterations in scaling have been made to adapt them to the acoustics of the auditorium.
The choir is all on one level and stands immediately to the right of the swell. It is a gentle division whose chief purpose is to assist the softer work in the swell in accompanying the soloist. The Mother Church uses only a soloist. As it was necessary to “double deck” the swell, it is fairly certain that with changes in temperature the pitch in the upper and lower swell might not always be together. To reduce the significance of this fact all the chorus work in the swell, both flues and reeds, was placed on the upper level while all of the softer work was grouped on the lower level. This means that the accompanimental stops of the swell will always be in tune with the choir and that the stops that make up the swell choruses will always be in tune with each other.
Returning to the choir, the sesquialtera consists of two large-scale soft open flutes. The carillon is composed of a large-scale rohrflöte and two nachthorns. The 16-ft. bassoon is half-length. The tuba is the genuine article and is enclosed.
The positiv stands on two levels directly in front of the swell. The specially-constructed lower windchest projects in front of the small center limestone arch approximately two feet and a beautifully carved mahogany case has been provided which covers the front of the chest. This casework is not merely decorative, as it provides a home for the lower pipes of the 8-ft. viola da gamba and 4-ft. prinzipal, these being of polished tin. So carefully were these details worked out that many of the smaller front pipes which appear to be standing on the mahogany case are actually standing on the main windchest. The whole division is voiced lightly. The mouths are cut very low and nicking is kept to a minimum. The gedeckt is the only new manual wood stop made for the organ. The cornet is wide scale and lightly winded. It is placed together with the three reeds on the upper chest. This upper chest protrudes beyond the small limestone arch only a few inches and the first rank of the cornet, which is of polished tin, is visible in the background above the main positiv case. The three reeds have been developed especially for this organ and are refined examples of their European counterparts.
The bombarde organ is placed on the same level as the great and the hauptwerk and this completes an array of unenclosed pipework across the top of the structure of the organ. The main portion of this division stands in the right end of the loft over the choir, but the two-rank principal is part of the facade. It has been arranged to frame the wheel window as it stands on the cornice of the limestone arch with the first rank, of polished tin in front. The cornet is identical with the one in the positiv except that it is stronger in every way. The two mixtures and the harmonics are voiced to complement the reeds, although together with the principal they are very useful in accompanying the enormous congregation. This is the reason that the bombarde was placed at the opposite end of the chamber from the great. The reeds are harmonic, with French shallots, and are voiced normally for the wind pressure.
The solo is in a newly-constructed chamber which replaced the one formerly occupied by the old echo organ. Several of the echo stops were retained. The old great principal chorus was revoiced and placed in this division with the two old solo flutes. The celestes, however are all new. The dolcans are ten semitones larger at the top than at the mouth. The division is actually an amazingly useful echo-solo-string-antiphonal organ.
The pedal organ was planned with the idea of making the use of pedal couplers unnecessary. Certain of the softest manual stops were selected for borrowing to the pedal. This gives a considerable choice of soft pedal tone, ranging from 32-ft. to 4-ft. without the customary disadvantages brought about by the use of manual to pedal couplers and, as these stops are seldom used in manual combinations until the tonal level has passed beyond the point where they would be of any use in the pedal, there is no real loss of independence. The twenty-nine independent pedal stops are voiced to develop the individual character of the pedal, so that by contrast in color as well as in pitch the pedal line is always clearly distinguishable from what is being played on the manuals. All of the pipes of the violon and grossquinte and twelve pipes of the 16-ft. principal are in the facade. The pipes of all stops 8-ft. and smaller are placed on five chests which partly form the top of the-choir box and this close grouping of the pedal upper work has made a considerable contribution toward the development of the individuality of the pedal. None of the pedal reeds are overly assertive, but when properly drawn fit neatly into the pedal ensemble.
The design of the imposing new facade is the result of many weeks of close collaboration between the organ architect and William G. Perry of the Boston architectural firm of Perry, Shaw & Hepburn, Kehoe and Dean, which was the architectural consultant for an extensive program of renovation in which the Mother Church has been engaged. Certain limestone and plaster features which were part of the old front were retained and incorporated into the new design. Most of the old front pipes also were retained and were redecorated. About 300 new pipes were added to the display and there are now 377 polished tin and gold-leafed pipes visible across the front of the organ. The majority of these are speaking pipes.


Photo by Len Levasseur

Photo by Len Levasseur

Trinity Church, Copley Square

Skinner Organ Company, Opus 573, 1926

Aeolian-Skinner Organ Co., Opus 573-C, 1961


4,500 trees pounded into alluvial muck hold up Trinity Church, a perennial presence on the American Institute of Architect's shortlist of greatest buildings in America.  Three men in their thirties made it happen: Phillips Brooks, the charismatic preacher from Philadelphia, architect Henry Hobson Richardson, as yet relatively untried but with sterling Harvard connections, and an artist known only for miniature watercolors, John La Farge.  Together they transformed one another and American architecture with a "color church" light years distant from the era’s prevailing vocabulary.  Richardson's Greek-cross plan draws upon Romanesque churches in the Auvergne and the tower of Salamanca Cathedral, familiar to him only through books.  John La Farge's mural program was the first in America, hastily completed under grueling winter conditions just in time for the church's dedication in February 1877.  Magnificent stained glass by La Farge, Oudinot, Clayton & Bell, Edward Burne Jones and William Morris intensify the pervasive glow of Pompeian red.  A number of young apprentices launched distinguished careers here, among them Augustus Saint Gaudens, Charles McKim, and Stanford White.  Music has formed an integral part of parish life since the arrival of the first organ in 1744 and the Vestry's decision in 1785 to set aside a pew for "such Persons as chuse to set in it who are capable of leading in the Singing." - Ross Wood

The original organ of Trinity Church was built by Hilborne L. Roosevelt in 1876, his Opus 29. It had mechanical action, assisted by Barker levers on all divisions, but its chancel location proved unsatisfactory, and the organ was moved to the gallery.

Hutchings-Votey built a new instrument for the chancel in 1903 and made both organs playable from a single console.

In 1924 Ernest M. Skinner undertook a rebuilding project — his Opus 479 — involving changes to both the Roosevelt and Hutchings-Votey instruments, but by 1926 it had expanded to Opus 573 as a virtually new organ in the gallery, as well as a new chancel console. This console was on the North side of the chancel and had four manuals. (The famous Parisian organist/composer Louis Vierne performed on this instrument on April 9, 1928. Afterward, he wrote expansively to Mr. Skinner in great admiration for the organ and its well-appointed console.)

Aeolian-Skinner provided a new console in 1956 which was placed on the South side of the chancel. The four manuals of the previous console were consolidated as part of a design to keep the console as low as possible.

Aeolian-Skinner installed a new chancel organ in 1960.

In 1962 the gallery organ was extensively rebuilt, and major tonal modifications were made by Jason McKown, who maintained the organs for many years.

In 1987 Jack Steinkampf installed a rank of horizontal trumpet pipes under the west gallery window.

During the late 1990’s, in conjunction with the parish’s building campaign, a plan was set out with Foley-Baker, Inc., for the cleaning and refurbishment of both organs and their joint console. This work is ongoing. To date, most of the gallery organ has been cleaned and refurbished, and the console updated with digital systems. Cleaning and renewal of the chancel organ was completed in February of 2007.

The chancel organ has 49 ranks of pipes played over three manuals and pedals. The nave organ has 75 ranks of pipes. The combined organs contain nearly 7,000 pipes. - organ description from the Trinity Church website


Old South Church

Skinner Organ Company, Op. 308 — 1921

Casavant Frères, Ltée and Hokans-Knapp, Associates — 1982-’84

Nelson Barden Associates, Inc. — 1987-’90



Originally known as New Old South Church (“new” being 1875) to distinguish it from still-standing Old South Meeting House (1729), this is the third home of a congregation gathered in 1669 that has counted Benjamin Franklin, William Dawes, and Samuel Adams among its members.  Cummings & Sears adapted John Ruskin’s Venetian Gothic style to a corner lot in a masterful way, evoking hints of Basilica San Marco.  In 1905 Louis Comfort Tiffany replaced the original interior stenciling with his own in purple and metallic silver, covering Clayton and Bell’s stained glass with purple glass as well.  That decorative scheme perished under a coat of battleship grey paint in the 1950s, followed by a skillful recreation of the original interior in 1984.  As if in sympathy with the collapse of San Marco’s campanile in 1902, Old South’s bell tower began listing by the 1920s and had to be pulled down and rebuilt slightly lower.  - Ross Wood

Photo by Len Levasseur

Photo by Len Levasseur

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. - from the Old South Church website

Methuen Memorial Music Hall

E.F. Walker and Company, Opus 200, 1863           

Aeolian-Skinner Organ Company, Inc., Opus 1103, 1947          


Few organs thrown out of their original locations have landed as gracefully as Methuen's.  Installed in 1863 on the stage of the original Boston Music Hall, the newly founded Boston Symphony Orchestra began jostling for space around its feet by 1881.  In 1884 an instrument costing $60K was sold for $5K, removed to storage and sold again for $1.5K to its savior, Edward Francis Searles, thus becoming the largest house organ in history.  Searles commissioned the Anglo-Dutch style hall which served as his private music room from 1909 until his death in 1920 from Henry Vaughan, architect of the National Cathedral.  From thence the property passed through the hands of Ernest M. Skinner, whose workshop it was until his bankruptcy, to a civic organization that has operated it as a cultural center since 1946.  - Ross Wood

Photo by Len Levasseur

Photo by Len Levasseur

Few instruments in the history of American organ building have had as long or as distinguished a career as the Boston Music Hall Organ. The first concert organ in the country, it remains today one of the outstanding organs in America.

The Boston Music Hall was built in 1852 by the Boston Music Hall Association. Jabez Baxter Upham (1820 - 1902) was then president of the association. By profession a physician, this public-spirited citizen was a leader in the Boston musical life of his generation. Before the hall was even erected, he was determined that Boston should have an organ of the first rank, and it was by his persistent enthusiasm, effort, solicitation, speech-making and personal generosity that the instrument was built.

In 1856, Dr. Upham was authorized to go to Europe for the purpose of choosing a builder and signing a contract at a cost not to exceed $25,000. Four months later, on February, 20, 1857, after a meticulous study of the major European builders, he signed a contract with E.F. Walcker and Company of Ludwigsburg, Germany. It was expected that the organ would be completed in a year's time, but immediately there began a series of delays. Walcker's copy of the contract was lost and another had to be executed. The American Civil War broke out, driving building costs higher. More money had to be raised to cover the increased cost of the project.

In 1862, the organ was finally completed in the factory and approved by a commission which included the noted organ authority, Dr. Edward John Hopkins, Organist and Master of the Choristers at the Temple Church in London. The organ was shipped from Rotterdam aboard the Dutch brig "Presto". Contrary to its name, however, the ship was so delayed by adverse weather that the company with which the organ was insured began to think that the ship had foundered with her precious cargo. Nevertheless, the "Presto" finally arrived in Boston in March, 1863, and the installation began.

The organ case was the work of the Herter Brothers of New York and was an adaptation of a design originally drawn by Hammatt Billings. It was made of American black walnut. The display pipes of the organ case were made of burnished pure English tin. The case demonstrated that an organ may have architectural as well as musical significance. On November 2, 1863, the organ was inaugurated. The final cost was $60,000.

For twenty-one years the organ stood in the Boston Music Hall. During this time, Boston musical life underwent a change. The initial enthusiasm for "The Great Organ" waned. In 1881, the Boston Symphony Orchestra was founded. It now commanded the attention of the Boston music public just as the organ had done a generation before. The growing orchestra needed more stage space. The result was that in 1884, despite vigorous protest which extended to legal action, the organ was, as Dr. Upham indignantly wrote, "expelled" from the hall, and sold for $5,000 to William O. Grover. It was apparently Grover's intention to give it to the New England Conservatory Of Music, but when he died, it still lay immured in storage and was sold at auction in 1897 to settle his estate.

The highest bidder was Edward Francis Searles (1841–1920) of Methuen, Massachusetts, and the price was $1,500. Dr. Upham was jubilant at this prospective resurrection of the instrument and in 1901 drafted yet another speech, designed for the opening of a new concert hall for the organ, but he died in 1902, and the hall was not finished until 1909.

In 1899, Searles set about rebuilding the organ and providing a new home for it in Methuen. He commissioned Henry Vaughan (1845–1917) to design a concert hall for the express purpose of housing the organ in the visual and acoustical setting that he felt it deserved. The resulting structure, Serlo Organ Hall, located on the banks of the Spicket River, is probably the only instance in history in which a hall of such proportions and such magnificence has been built for the sole purpose of housing an organ.

The design, construction and decoration of Serlo Organ Hall consumed ten years. The exterior design of the hall is relatively simple, with very high and narrow proportions. Although a tall Italianate campanile and an elaborate gable with baroque volutes are featured, the style is principally Anglo-Dutch in character.

methuen memorial music hall

In contrast, the interior design, of English baroque style, is incredibly rich. The stylistic details and spatial arrangement are patterned after the work of Sir Christopher Wren (1632–1723); particularly his interior design of 1662–1687 at St. Stephen's Church in Walbrook, England.

The building follows the Latin cross type of floor plan. The organ stands in the chancel; the nave and transepts provide seating space for the audience. The walls, over three feet in thickness, contain air spaces which make the building nearly soundproof and also relatively impervious to extreme weather conditions. The floor is laid in marble squares, alternately reddish-brown and gray-in color. The lower walls, to a height of about ten feet, are finished in dark oak paneling; above that are panels of brocade which serve the double purpose of absorbing excessive reverberation and providing a contrasting texture to the plaster walls in which they are placed. The ceiling is an immense Roman barrel vault, executed in plaster with profuse classical detail. The vault appears to rest on a classic entablature, the cornice of which conceals indirect lighting. Roman Corinthian pilasters at the corners complete the classic vocabulary of the design. The hall is about sixty-five feet in height to the center of the vault; forty feet wide in the nave; seventy feet wide at the transepts; and slightly over one hundred feet in length. With a volume of somewhat over 300,000 cubic feet, the reverberation period of the hall, when empty, is about four seconds.

From 1905 to 1909, the organ was rebuilt by the Methuen Organ Company, a financial holding of Searles. Together with another of Searles' holdings, the United States Tubular Bell Company, the Methuen Organ Company occupied a wooden building on the north bank of the Spicket River, originally built as a woolen mill.

Most of the work of rebuilding the Boston Music Hall Organ is thought to have been done by John M. Ingraham (1866–?), an employee of the Methuen Organ Company. The reconstruction left the pipework and case relatively intact; the action and console were completely new. As originally built by Walcker, the organ utilized cone-valve (ventil) windchests with a tracker-pneumatic action. The console was integral with the case, being in the center niche beneath the bust of Johann Sebastian Bach. The new windchests were of the pallet-slider type, actuated by an electropneumatic mechanism from a detached console.

The organ, rebuilt and housed in a magnificent building, was used only for Mr. Searles' private entertainment. The public was not admitted to Serlo Organ Hall during his lifetime.

Edward F. Searles died in Methuen in 1920. Ownership of Serlo Organ Hall was bequeathed to his confidential secretary, Arthur Thomas Walker (1877–1927), as residuary legatee of the Searles will. Upon Mr. Walker's death in Windham, the property was bequeathed to his niece, Ina Cecil McEachran of Detroit. In 1930, Lillian Wightman Andrew (1882–1961), wife of a Methuen and Lawrence banker and businessman, Francis Martin Andrew (1880 - 1967), purchased a large portion of the Walker estate, including the organ hall.

Ernest M. Skinner (1866–1960), one of the most influential American organbuilders, acquired title to the hall and surrounding properties in 1931. During the ensuing years, he presented public performances of such choral works as Brahms' Requiem, the Bach B minor Mass and Handel's Messiah. In addition, recitals were given by such organ virtuosi of the day as Marcel Dupre (1886–1971 ), Lynnwood Farnam (1885–1930) and E. Power Biggs (1906–1977).

In 1936, he established the Ernest M. Skinner and Son Company, with his son Richmond H. Skinner as vice-president. The enterprise occupied the former Methuen Organ Company factory building which was joined to the hall. One of the most significant instruments constructed at this site was the huge organ built in 1937 and 1938 for the National Cathedral in Washington, D.C. (An interesting coincidence: the original architect of the National Cathedral was Henry Vaughan, who also designed the Serlo Organ Hall.) The company flourished for several years, and many fine instruments were built for clients throughout the country. However, Federal restrictions on the utilization of strategic metals due to the Second World War and the accompanying general business decline brought about worsening conditions for the firm. In August 1942, the company transferred all of its assets to Arthur T. Wasserman and Matthew Brown as trustees to protect itself from creditors. A land court decree in May 1943, empowered the Essex Savings Bank of Lawrence to sell the hall and factory building as properties covered by two mortgages: one given by Francis Martin Andrew and Lillian Wightman Andrew, and the other given by Richmond H. Skinner.

The wooden organ factory building was destroyed by a general alarm fire in June 1943. Fortunately, the conflagration was prevented from spreading to the adjoining organ hall building. Essex Savings Bank acquired title to the property at the mortgage foreclosure public auction in July 1943, for $55,000.

In May, 1946, eight area residents organized and filed the necessary papers with the Department of Corporations and Taxation of the Commonwealth of Massachusetts to form a charitable corporation under the name of Methuen Memorial Music Hall, Inc. The primary purpose for which the corporation was formed was to acquire, operate and manage the Serlo Organ Hall as a permanent cultural center.

The 1947 reconstruction, supervised by G. Donald Harrison, involved few mechanical changes. The Methuen Organ Company console was made movable and was modernized by the addition of a concave, radiating pedal board and of an adjustable combination action, which actuates the stopknobs and coupler tablets by remote control. But, the internal mechanism of the organ proper was left essentially unchanged. Tonally, the reconstruction was a comprehensive one. Certain thick-toned stops were deleted; the chorus reeds were removed from the Great; a new set of chorus reeds of the french trompette type was added to the Swell; the old unenclosed Choir division was converted into a dazzling Positiv; a chorus of baroque reeds was provided for the fourth manual division, formerly called Solo, now Choir; and the composition of the mixtures was radically changed. The Pedal was modified and augmented in keeping with these manual changes. The Æolian-Skinner reconstruction was performed for a contract price of $24,500.

Whereas the 1947 reconstruction removed the chorus reeds from the Great, the decision was made in 1970 to return this ensemble. Utilizing windchest space and stopknobs already available, the Andover Organ Company of Methuen installed chorus reeds of 16', 8', and 4' pitch. They are of German construction, of great power and brilliance, designed to contrast with the chorus reeds of the Swell and to climax the chorus of the entire organ. The organ in the Methuen Memorial Music Hall; with its rich foundations, shimmering strings, sparkling mixtures and brilliant reeds; provides seemingly endless resources for the interpretation of all periods of the organ literature. It remains today one of the most noble examples of the "King of Instruments". - text by Edward Sampson, from the Methuen Memorial Music Hall website

Church of the Advent

Aeolian-Skinner Organ Co., Opus 940, 1936, 1964


Founded in 1844 to bring the liturgical reforms of the eleven-year-old Oxford Movement to America’s shores, the Church of the Advent immediately garnered both converts and controversy for the cause of Anglo-Catholicism.  On his first visit, the Bishop of Massachusetts was so offended by the presence of a cross and candlesticks on the altar that he vowed never to return unless they were removed (they were not, he did).  John Sturgis designed a church perfectly attuned to High Church liturgy and music, derived from English models and blessed with a fine acoustic.  Since its consecration in 1892 the parish has devoted considerable resources to a music program that performs some sixty Mass settings and 150 anthems and motets per year. - Ross Wood

Photo by Len Levasseur

Photo by Len Levasseur

For two and a half centuries Boston has been a city of organs and organ-builders. When Thomas Brattle’s little chamber organ arrived from London in 1708 it was quite a novelty; the Reverend Joseph Green of Salem noted in his diary that he had been to Brattle’s house and “heard ye organ and saw strange things in a microscope.” In those days an organ in a home was a delight, but an organ in a church was an abomination. When Brattle died and willed the instrument to the Brattle Square Church it was summarily refused, so it went to King’s Chapel. There the congregation did not refuse it, but they were exceedingly ambivalent. Cotton Mather and other dignitaries bitterly denounced the “box of whistles” and the organ remained outside the church in a crate on the porch. For seven months one of organ music’s longer debates dragged on; finally, in 1714, the Brattle Organ became the first church pipe organ in the Colonies. 

In 1800 there were four or five local organ builders, and in 1850 there were ten, by which time the Church of the Advent had its third organ. The first had been a little foot-pumped melodeon offered in 1844 by the Rector, Dr. Croswell, for the services on Merrimac Street and at the Lowell Street Meeting Hall. When the congregation moved to the Green Street Church in 1846, a new pipe organ was purchased for $350. After this time, the Advent embarked on an extraordinary series of new organs to match the growing needs of the congregation. The third organ was acquired in 1849, the fourth in 1865 with the move to Bowdoin Street. Nine years later this was sold (or perhaps donated by Mrs. Jack Gardner) to the Groton School Chapel. A fifth instrument by the noted Boston builders E. and G. G. Hook was then installed, but it was not satisfactory to Samuel Brenton Whitney, the Advent’s famous organist, and it lasted only a year, being supplanted by the sixth organ in 1875.

In 1883, upon completion of the present church’s crossing and nave, the Advent acquired its seventh and penultimate pipe organ. It was a Hutchings-Plaisted Company instrument of considerable size, with three keyboards and pedals, costing $6,750. The pipes and mechanism were located in the present organ chamber with the console directly below in the All Saints Chapel. Of course, this organ (and all previous ones) had mechanical action, that is, hundreds of wooden sticks connecting the keys and pedals to the organ chests above. These sticks (or trackers, as they are called) ran out the top of the console and straight up through the Chapel ceiling, where the outline of the passage may still be seen, now paneled over. As with many such instruments, the mechanical linkage may have been noisy and difficult to manage, for the more stops that were drawn, the harder it was to play.

There are no records of the fact, but it is quite possible that the tuning of this instrument was done by a young Hutchings employee named Ernest M. Skinner. Skinner developed into a brilliant inventor; joining Hutchings in 1890, he soon rose to rank of superintendent. Eventually he produced an electric action for Hutchings that did away with heavy-handed organ playing. One or all stops could be on, yet the light and even touch never varied.

After thirty-eight years of service, Samuel B. Whitney retired in 1908. He was honored by the title organist emeritus and, in 1909, was elected to the Corporation. Thus he was doubtless consulted in 1912 when the twenty-nine-year-old organ was rebuilt with the Hutchings’ patent electric action. The new console, a gift of the Misses Sturgis in memory of Charles Russell Sturgis, stood just under the pipe chamber in the chancel. (Joints in the flooring still show the position.) With a new lease on life, the Hutchings organ continued in use for twenty-two more years.

* * *

Now let us skip to the 1920s, look in again on the ingenious Mr. Skinner, and pause to examine in detail the extraordinary events that were to culminate in the eighth and present Advent organ, a most remarkable instrument.

By 1926 the young tuner and inventor from Hutchings was an exuberant sixty-year-old patriarch, head of the Skinner Organ Company of Boston, leaders in American organ building, for twenty-five years supreme in influence and excellence. With the financial backing of Arthur Hudson Marks, a wealthy devotee of the organ, and some of the proudest advertising of the century, Skinner toured the country selling huge organs in prominent places. The two hundred men of his Boston and Westfield factories worked a double shift six days a week to keep up. On average they shipped a new organ every week of the year. 

It was a massive undertaking, considering the quality and complexity of the product. Skinner’s inventiveness had revolutionized the mechanism of the organ into a pacesetter for this country and equal to the best in the world. A Skinner organ was as breathtaking as a Steinway, and it was much, much bigger.

The tonal design of Skinner’s organs was also his own production. He had developed colors based on the infinite variety and majestic power of the Wagnerian orchestra. A Skinner organ of any size contained choirs of String tone, Flutes, Oboes, English and French horns, Clarinets, a Harp, Trumpets, Brass Choruses and stirring Wagnerian Tuba effects. All these voices were invented or perfected by Skinner, save the last; the big Tubas were copied from Willis, the venerable English organ builder. In fact, the famous Henry Willis III himself made several trips to Boston on a consulting basis. Eventually, at Skinner’s request, Willis sent over his own assistant and protégé, G. Donald Harrison, as a tonal adviser. 

Ernest Skinner was a fine organ builder, but in the late 1920’s he hardly realized that a reform movement away from orchestral organs was budding all around him. Some organists were saying that an organ should play Bach’s music as Bach himself heard it, not in an expanded orchestral version. Skinner was contemptuous. To him, Bach’s organ was a “box of whistles”. When it was pointed out that a pipe organ is not an orchestra, Mr. Skinner’s attitude took on a certain defensiveness.

But characteristically, he would not change. Meanwhile, the enterprising company president, Arthur Marks, set about annexing another organ maker, the Aeolian Company of Garwood, New Jersey. Aeolian had produced nearly 900 pipe organs, some of enormous size, but virtually none in churches – for what Skinner was to the Church, Aeolian was to the Home. They specialized in luxurious installations in residences, as well as quite a few on yachts. Almost all had automatic roll players of surprising effectiveness – no organist was ever necessary. The Aeolian Concertola would even play a program of ten rolls in rotation, and in a few installations the Steinway grand could play the harp part – at three pitches.

The refinement of the Aeolian tone was remarkable, and with only a few inconspicuous alterations, any home could house an Aeolian organ of virtually any size. Marks knew that the combination of Aeolian and his own company would be ideal, and after protracted negotiations, the merger was effected. With a proud new hyphenated name, Aeolian-Skinner, and the new tonal director from England, “Don” Harrison, at his heels, Marks hoisted all sails and charted a flamboyant course – straight into the depths of the Great Depression.

By 1932 business was terrible. The much-vaunted Aeolian Company’s residence organ business fell to nothing even as the merger went through. No one could afford a luxurious house organ now; churches felt the pinch as well. The Aeolian-Skinner factory was in the doldrums – instead of an organ a week, they were lucky to build an organ at all. Bankruptcy and factory closings were decimating the industry; the two hundred man Skinner team was halved, and shrunk further. The Westfield plant closed, never to reopen.

Marks understood that keeping things afloat meant bold thinking and a new direction. He settled on G. Donald Harrison, the new English tonal director. Harrison’s ideas were not new or especially unique; as in all things, everything in the pipe organ business is derivative. But Harrison’s designs were in line with the movement away from orchestral ideals, and by now he had the support of several well-known and highly respected organists. Perhaps Harrison as a new broom would sweep in a few much-needed contracts. 

George Donald Harrison was an impressive figure, with a noble British accent – forty-three years old, an artist, a diplomat, and a gentleman. Like Skinner, his personality was of great power, his presence commanding. He inspired the complete confidence of organ committees, and, even more telling, the loyalty of the factory men as well.

Unfortunately, it was difficult for Ernest Skinner to see that the ideas of a younger man could be more in step with the times. Increasingly, he viewed Harrison’s concepts as a debasement of the tried-and-true Skinner design, and worse yet, a personal affront. As early as 1930 he was openly contemptuous, seesawing between periods of reluctant collaboration and outright warfare. Despite a long-standing perfection of means, the new Aeolian-Skinner Company was torn apart by a confusion of aims.

As President, Arthur Hudson Marks controlled the Company stock, and he supported Harrison. Ernest Skinner was encouraged to build his own contracts in his own way, but the dominant thrust of the Company was to be Harrison’s. The sixty-nine-year-old Skinner, annoyed by what was to him unaccountable behavior, withdrew to Methuen, Massachusetts, and there continued building the “authentic” Skinner organ. Gradually the dust settled, and Mr. Skinner leaves our story here.

Despite the exigencies of the Depression and with a healthy cash reserve, Aeolian-Skinner remained surprisingly intact. Even in the depths of the Depression, enough contracts trickled in to maintain a corps of the finest artisans, and the splendid Aeolian-Skinner quality never varied. With the encouragement of such luminaries as Dr. Albert Schweitzer and E. Power Biggs, Harrison began to design radically different tonal schemes – organs that incorporated historical as well as modern voices, organs that could play Bach just as well as 19th century music. Instead of Skinner’s voices of the orchestra, Harrison instituted a return to the traditional practice of pure organ tone in choruses of many pitches, capped by stops of great brilliance called mixtures.

For Harrison to put all his tonal eggs in one basket meant a flurry of mechanical redesign at the factory, as well as extended tonal experimentation in the real acoustical setting of a church building. It became necessary to find a progressive organist and a church close to the factory that would welcome the new and largely untried ideas. So far, Harrison had only one example (and that incomplete) to show of his new work – Saint John’s Chapel at Groton School. Would it be as effective in another setting?

* * *

Meanwhile, the Church of the Advent was having water problems. As early as 1927, water leaking through the roof of the organ chamber had damaged the mechanism. The Hutchings organ was now 52 years old, and despite a sizeable gift in 1933 for repairs from Corporation Member Frederick Moseley, the old organ was failing. Frederick Johnson was organist, a service player par excellenceand a boy choir director of great accomplishment. He also had an unswerving devotion to G. Donald Harrison and the Aeolian-Skinner Company.

Talk of a new Advent organ had surfaced as early as 1932, without result. In 1935 the disposition of a generous bequest from Harold Jefferson Coolidge evoked considerable discussion. Many members felt the pews should be replaced with cathedral chairs. Johnson thought the funds should defray the expenses of a new organ, as did Wallace Goodrich, a member of the Corporation, director of the New England Conservatory, and an organist himself. Eventually everyone agreed, including the Rector (coincidentally named Harrison): the flooded and failing Hutchings-Plaisted organ would be replaced with the eighth Advent organ, a new Aeolian-Skinner costing $24,000.

The new Advent organ was polished like a diamond. Harrison himself took charge of the final voicing, and devoted every effort to building a perfect instrument. For the Advent was a perfect church – handsome architecture, stunning appointments, a liturgy of compelling beauty and acoustics that angels would love. It was rumored that certain sets of pipes in the principal chorus – over a thousand pipes, and the backbone of the organ – were repeatedly shipped back to the factory for revision, a staggering undertaking. Apparently the voicers made adroit alterations to match the acoustics of the building.

Finally, Harrison was satisfied with the outcome. Clarence Watters played the dedicatory recital in April 1936; everyone was there. All agreed it was an impressive instrument and an organ that one liked to sing with. As usual, the Old Guard heard too much brilliance, the reform organists, just enough. But few who attended realized the enormous significance of the event. Harrison’s work was so novel that it took months, even years, for the full impact to be felt.

In general, pipe organs change slowly. The best of them add but little to the evolution of the instrument. To change the whole course of American organ building with a single instrument is a rarity indeed – scarcely a handful of organs have done this in two hundred years. Boston has been the happy site of two such events: the first was the opening of the Boston Music Hall organ in 1863; the other was the Advent organ in 1936. Not surprisingly, it became the Aeolian-Skinner showcase, and as time passed the impact on organ-building became more impressive and more profound. Harrison’s influence soon eclipsed all his contemporaries, and the genesis of his world-famous American Classic Style was in the Brimmer Street Church. The American Classic Organs, with their resplendent and instantly recognizable tone, were universally imitated in this country for 35 years. Thus the Advent organ was soon considered a pivotal organ of the 20th century.

Organists talked of little else; there followed a parade of prominent artists. When Dr. Schweitzer toured this country in 1949, he chose three organs to play, one of them the Advent. Virtually every book and article on organs of the period describes the instrument, frequently at length. Many who play it have echoed Thomas Stevens’ remarks in the British journal The Organ: “It will be obvious that I was very much struck with this instrument . . . the Advent organ was probably the finest modern organ that I have heard…” 

In the years since 1935 a succession of exceptional organists have presided at this instrument: Frederick Johnson, George Faxon, Alfred Patterson, Emory Fanning, John Cook, Phillip Steinhaus, Edith Ho and Mark Dwyer. They have seen organ-building change radically in the intervening years. G. Donald Harrison died in 1956, and the Aeolian-Skinner Company, after achieving the ultimate height of fame and prestige under his direction, gradually lost it all.

Several men attempted to take over his role, but there was no one with the strength of character and clear vision to replace him. Faced with an attrition of working capital, a gradual loss of the older artisans, and the increasing difficulty of building quality musical instruments of enormous size and complexity, the great edifice of Aeolian-Skinner slowly crumbled into bankruptcy.

Many large and important instruments have been erected in Boston since 1935. The philosophy of Harrison’s American Classic has been carried further, and into new channels. But for the visitor and the local enthusiast alike, the Church of the Advent is still the place where the American Classic Organ was born. It remains one of the finest jewels in the sparkling Aeolian-Skinner crown – highly unusual in its day, by now a venerable and majestic instrument; a stunning example of artistic American organ building at its very best. - text by Jonathan Ambrosino and Nelson Barden, and extracted from the Church of the Advent website

Arlington Street Church

Aeolian-Skinner Organ Co., Inc., Opus 1307, 1957


Arlington Street Church, the first public building to be erected on the landfill of Back Bay, was begun in 1859 and dedicated in 1861.  Architect Arthur Gilman took the London church of St. Martin-in-the-Fields as his exterior model, reinterpreted in New Jersey brownstone.  The interior owes much to the Basilica della Santissima Annunziata del Vastato in Genoa.  A 190-foot steeple houses its original chime of sixteen bells.  Inside, an exceptional ensemble of windows by Tiffany Studios spans the firm’s work from 1898 to 1930.  Gathered in 1729 by Scottish Calvinists, the congregation evolved into a bastion of Unitarian Universalist liberalism under William Ellery Channing (1780-1842), becoming in 2004 the site of the first state-sanctioned same-sex marriage in the United States. - Ross Wood


King's Chapel

C.B. Fisk, Inc., Op. 44, 1964 


King’s Chapel opened in 1689 as the first Anglican church in Boston, Peter Harrison’s larger granite building replacing the original wooden structure by 1754.  The planned steeple remains a good intention.  Firmly loyalist at the American Revolution, defections steadily reduced attendance until March 10, 1776, when Rev. Henry Caner packed up the church silver and headed for Halifax.  James Freeman, lay reader at the re-opened church by 1782, embraced Unitarianism with a fervor that prompted the Episcopal bishop to refuse his ordination.  Undaunted, pew owners ordained Freeman themselves, establishing the first Unitarian church in America.  Prominent King’s Chapel musicians have included William Billings, William Selby, Virgil Thomson, and Daniel Pinkham.  A bell cast by Paul Revere still peals out on Sunday mornings. - Ross Wood

As the first three-manual tracker action organ built by an American firm in the twentieth century, Fisk, Opus 44 was a milestone instrument.

Although an otherwise new instrument, the organ has a number of stops that contain pipes from the previous instrument. Three mixtures and a Fifteenth, which were placed in the old organ by C. B. Fisk in 1960, were revoiced for the new organ. The Pedal Trombone combines old resonators with new shallots, tongues, and boots; the Pedal Open Bass, wood flutes, strings, and some other stops were also modified and revoiced for the new organ.

The case, a replica of the church’s 1756 organ, is placed well forward in the gallery with the Great and the Choir speaking toward the front. Located above and behind the Great, the Swell has separately controllable openings facing both forward and backward. The Pedal is within the main case beneath the Swell and speaks mainly to the back wall. Newly constructed of hard plaster, this wall functions as an efficient reflector and gives the sound projected rearward a quality distinguished from the forward projected sound.

Although the organ was a success, as the years went by Charles Fisk became increasingly dissatisfied with certain stops in the organ. The Choir Mixture was modified only a few years after the completion of the organ, and in 1979 a new mixture of larger scale was provided in place of the Swell Sharp. A year later the Trumpet 8' and Clarion 4' of the Great, which had been purchased from an Austrian firm and from the beginning had been judged too thin and unblending, were replaced by a larger scale French-style Trumpet and an 8' Cromorne, both made in the Fisk pipe shop. from the C. B. Fisk website

Photo by Len Levasseur

Photo by Len Levasseur

Old West Church

C. B. Fisk, Op. 55, 1971


Occupying higher ground than Old North Church, the original church of 1737 was razed by British troops fearful its spire would also be used to send signals across the river. Not until 1806 did Benjamin Asher complete the present Federal-style building. With the 18th-century Otis House next door it is the sole survivor of the West End neighborhood that vanished during Boston’s brush with urban renewal. The proportions of the front tower are especially harmonious, shallow pilasters leading the eye upward to two floors of windows surmounted by clock, swag, and cupola. Congregationalist at its founding, converted into a public library at the end of the 19th century, Old West has housed a Methodist congregation since 1964. - Ross Wood

The instrument, one of the more modest three-manual organs made by C. B. Fisk, has proven to be remarkably flexible for the interpretation of a wide range of musical styles. Economy dictated re-use of several sets of rebuilt pipes, largely in the Swell and Pedal, from a previous Cole instrument.

The main case is a re-working of a mahogany case built about 1830 and attributed to Thomas Appleton. The case, which had been painted, was salvaged from a church slated for destruction in Ipswich, Massachusetts. A new second tower was added to what had been a central tower design, and the Choir case, mounted on the gallery rail, is entirely new. The Great Trumpet 8' was the first set of reed pipes to be made in the then newly-established Fisk pipeshop. As in many Fisk organs from this time, there is a strong French classic influence in the basic tonal design, essentially Alsatian, and most closely related to the Andreas Silbermann organ in Marmoutier, France.

For decades, this instrument served as the chief teaching and recital organ for the New England Conservatory of Music and is among the most beloved of Charles Fisk's works. 

The Memorial Church, Harvard University

C. B. Fisk, Op 139, 2012


Harvard had a distinct chapel as early as 1744, its location changing regularly until Appleton Chapel settled into the present site in 1858.  Though long outgrown it was not replaced until 1932, when Coolidge, Shepley, Bulfinch & Abbott, successors to H. H. Richardson, erected the present structure as a war memorial.  The ponderous columns of the porch announce a prosperous, well-fed neo-Georgian style, a suitable counterweight to the bulk of Widener Library and H.H. Richardson’s masterful Sever Hall across the Yard. - Ross Wood

Named in memory of two influential leaders — Charles B. Fisk, who influenced the trajectory of American organ building in the 20th century, and the Rev. Peter J. Gomes, who adeptly communicated through word and speech the presence of God’s love in art and music — this Fisk, Op. 139 stands as a soaring testament to music’s immeasurable power in corporate worship, its place in a modern and dynamic university, and its impact on the lives of countless persons who, in the coming decades, will find inspiration and seek knowledge in its smooth voice, malleable tone, and delicate craftsmanship. 

The installation of Opus 139 marked the completion of a multi-year period of restoration and renewal in The Memorial Church, a project that is a legacy of the late leader, the Reverend Professor Peter J. Gomes, Plummer Professor of Christian Morals and Pusey Minister in the Memorial Church at Harvard University. He was a man whose genius was to not only embrace the past, as he did so vibrantly, but to envision a definable and glorious future for his beloved institution, ensuring both its viability and vitality.

The Fisk organ is ideally suited for its space — not only architecturally, but tonally. Its 3,110 uniquely crafted pipes comprising 44 individual voices sing vibrantly into the room for which it was designed. Its placement in the gallery near the ceiling helps guide its sound efficiently into the room, allowing for an enlivened sonic experience and an eminently improved capacity for supporting congregational singing in the Church.

Three divisions of the organ — the Great, Positive, and Pedal — live comfortably inside the main case of the organ, while the substantial Swell division and the largest of the pedal pipes (which are as wide and long as an oak tree’s trunk) are housed in new construction within the attic of the church, speaking through a tone chute hidden by the upper portion of the casework. The Positive division in the main case is behind the central façade and above the organist’s head, allowing direct speech into the room; many of the organ’s “melody” stops are in this division, which is ideally suited to interact with the magnifying qualities of the barrel vaulted ceiling. The Great and Pedal divisions are spread low and wide to the sides of the main case, minimizing their interaction with the vaulted ceiling, thus ensuring that these fundamental and substantial divisions do not tire the listener’s ear.

The majority of the pipe-work is made of hand-cast sheets of lead and tin alloys. (The quality of a pipe’s sound is largely impacted by the specific metal alloy utilized.) The remaining pipe-work is constructed of wood, which in many cases gives the tone a “flute-like” quality. All of the pipe-work and its supporting mechanisms are connected to the console via an intricate system of “trackers,” allowing the organist to control the organ’s breathing and speech by manipulating the engagement of wind and pipe. (For instance, a fast key attack at the console will create a different quality of pipe speech than a slow one.) While the fundamental design of a “tracker-” (or “mechanical-”) action organ hasn’t changed in hundreds of years, our organ trackers are made of modern carbon fiber material, which is stronger than wood or metal and lighter for the organist’s touch. In addition, Opus 139 features a Kowalyshyn Servopneumatic Lever, which provides a power-assist to the Great key action and couplers, allowing the organist to manage and control large portions of the organ with relative physical ease while maintaining a fine sense of connection to the instrument. Finally, our organ lives in its own climate; a dedicated HVAC system provides air to the organ that is then cycled back by way of a circular system. The resulting environmental constancy provides the instrument with tuning and mechanical stability in a church that, on the whole, is not climate-controlled.

Gregory R. Bover, Fisk project manager for the design and construction of Opus 139, wrote, in 2012, of the instrument’s genesis:

When initial discussions about the possibility of a new organ in Memorial Church began in 2005, they presented C. B. Fisk, Inc. with a complex set of challenges and opportunities. Charles Fisk, the founder of our company, was a Cambridge native and a Harvard alumnus. In 1967, his then six-year-old firm built a large four-manual organ in the Church’s Appleton Chapel, in front of the grand Palladian window. It was not the location that he would have preferred, and caring for this instrument over the intervening years had given us, his followers, an appreciation for the reasoning behind his preference and an intimacy with the splendors and foibles of the acoustical environment into which it spoke.

The decision to build a new organ in the gallery, to move the choir there for Sunday services, and to install a separate instrument in the original chambers of Appleton Chapel frees both instruments from compromise. The tonal design of Opus 139 is an eclectic choice of historically based voices that authentically reflect the best examples of French, German, and English organ sound from the last four centuries. With the Swell and the Positive divisions under expression, a plethora of colors at eight-foot pitch — including the powerful Tuba mirabilis — is available at all dynamic levels.

In the Fisk tradition, the visual design of the new organ was carefully created in a precise scale model of the building to ensure harmony with the Georgian Revival interior. The dark oak case, ornate carvings, and gold-leafed front pipes were all concepts developed in consultation with the Reverend Gomes and the musicians of Memorial Church. The position of the organ in the gallery, the arrangement of the divisions within the organ, and the decisions made during the nine-month voicing process all reflect our long-term study of the acoustical properties of the room and the roles the organ will play in the life of the church, first and foremost as choral accompaniment and in support of congregational singing, but also in solo recital and as a teaching instrument.

The men and women of C. B. Fisk, Inc. spent more than 40,000 hours to create Opus 139 as a tribute to Charles Fisk and the Reverend Gomes, whose friendship and guidance we valued so highly. 

Steven Dieck, current president of C. B. Fisk, Inc., added,

Charles Fisk always dreamed of building a major pipe organ for his alma mater. As a young physics major at Harvard College, he could often be found tinkering with organ pipes in his dorm room, and it was this passion for the pipe organ and its music that ultimately compelled him to abandon a blossoming career in physics to become an organ builder. With the installation of Opus 46 in Memorial Church in 1967, his dream of building an organ for Harvard was realized.

Charlie loved to keep ideas flowing and to “stir the pot,” as he would say. Opus 46 was a daring instrument that not only represented his then most notable to date, but it also influenced American perceptions on how organs could and should be built for decades to come. Opus 139 continues his relationship with Harvard.

- Christian Lane



Wellesley College, Houghton Memorial Chapel

C.B. Fisk, Op. 72, 1981


Wellesley College, an undergraduate liberal arts college for women founded in 1875, lies twelve miles west of Boston on five hundred acres of wooded hills and meadows surrounding Lake Waban.  Laid out by Frederick Law Olmsted, Jr. under supervising architect Ralph Adams Cram, the campus is celebrated for its idyllic beauty.  A 182-foot tower dominating the academic quadrangle contains a carillon installed by Gillett & Johnston in 1931.  Heins & La Farge, authors of the original plan for New York’s Cathedral of St. John the Divine, designed Houghton Chapel in 1897 in a curiously squat neo-Gothic style.  Noteworthy features include sculpture by Daniel Chester French and stained glass by John La Farge, Tiffany Studios, and Charles J. Connick.  Next door, the façade of the College’s first music building bears an unmistakable resemblance to the organ case at Methuen Memorial Music Hall, both designed by Hammatt Billings. - Ross Wood

Wellesley College first signed a contract in 1972 for a two-manual organ based on antique Dutch instruments from the early 17th century. The idea of an organ of ‘uncompromising authenticity’ underwent considerable evolution in the decade preceding its construction. From the beginning, it was intended that this specialized instrument would allow serious students of the organ to experience authentic antique European sounds. The design of the instrument would require extensive research into materials, construction methods, and voicing techniques involving hands-on experience with historic instruments. College officials were aware that this unusual instrument, by offering ‘ear-opening revelations,’ would be an important contribution to the international organ scene and would draw acclaimed musicians and scholars from around the world.

Research trips taken in 1974 and 1977, organized with the help of Harald Vogel, directed the focus of the project onto the instruments of Gottfried Fritzsche, represented in the surviving work of his son-in-law, Friedrich Stellwagen. Of particular interest was Stellwagen’s three-manual organ at the Jakobikirche in Lübeck, Germany. Measurements and observations made in the Jakobikirche and in the Compenius organ at Friedricksburg Castle in Denmark provided the raw data used to construct authentic key actions, wind system, windchests, and pipework. For insight into18th century construction methods Charles Fisk and his colleagues regularly consulted Dom Bédos de Celles' 1775 treatise L'art du facteur d'orgues.

The vision for this instrument was first articulated by Owen Jander, noted scholar and longtime Professor of Music at Wellesley. He frequently visited the workshop during the construction and was a constant source of encouragement, not only to Charles Fisk, but also to all the shop members. After the dedication he worked tirelessly to raise funds for the completion of the Pedal and Brustpedalia divisions, as well as for the hand-carved gilded pipe shades by sculptor Morgan Faulds Pike.

The organ’s casework is fumed white oak, and the façade pipes hammered burnished spotted metal, half lead and half tin. The wind pressure is 3 1/4" water column, and the temperament is 1/4 comma meantone. The organ is equipped with two winding systems, a human-powered double wedge bellows system, and an electric blower system using one of the wedge bellows.

Opus 72 was the last organ that Charles Fisk finish-voiced before his death in 1983. - from the C.B. Fisk website

Photo by Len Levasseur

Photo by Len Levasseur

First Lutheran Church

Richards, Fowkes & Co., Opus 10, 2000


Founded in 1839 as the German Lutheran Society, First Lutheran is affiliated with the Missouri Synod and is the oldest such congregation in New England.  Outgrowing earlier buildings of 1847 and 1899 in Boston’s South End, the church experienced rapid growth when English replaced German in its services in the early 20th century.  The present Back Bay building was designed between 1954 and 1957 by Pietro Belluschi, dean of the MIT School of Architecture until 1965, known for his work on New York’s Pan Am building, Alice Tully Hall, and the symphony halls of Baltimore and San Francisco.  Its graceful roof floating over a red-brick coffer makes an elegant case for integrating a Modernist building into a staunchly Victorian neighborhood.  - Ross Wood

In 1995, under the direction of organ consultant William Porter and Minister of Music Mark Meyer, discussions began for a new mechanical action organ to replace the previous electric action built by Wicks. After a nationwide search, Richards, Fowkes & Co. of Ooltewah, Tennesee was selected. The organ was completed in 2000 as the company’s Opus 10, and has since gained a reputation as one of the finest Baroque organs in New England and one of the best instruments in The Lutheran Church—Missouri Synod.

The North German case of white oak blends well with the simple linear feel of the church interior. The ornate case, designed in the North German style and constructed of white oak, contrasts with the linear architecture of the nave, not unlike an antique work of art in a modern museum. The organ is voiced with a gentle, vocal quality that is nevertheless strong enough to accompany congregational singing, and it renders the organ repertoire of the historic Lutheran tradition with the utmost authenticity. There are seven independent reed stops over the two manuals and pedal, including three (with a short length 16′ Dulcian) in the Rückpositiv.

The manual coupler connects the Werk to the Rückpositiv in the Dutch tradition, rather than the more normal Rückpositiv to Werk. This is particulary useful in leading hymn singing: the accompaniment can be played on the Werk, and its stops combined with those of the Rückpositiv play the chorale tune.

In 2010, the organ was completed with the installation of the 8′ Vox humana, the 4′ Schalmei, and the 2′ Cornet following a fundraising campaign and the generous support of William Porter and Jane Wilson. from the First Lutheran Music website

Photo by Len Levasseur

Photo by Len Levasseur

Adolphus Busch Hall, Harvard University

Flentrop Orgelbouw, 1958


E. Power Biggs was without a doubt one of the most famous concert organists of his day; his recordings are still widely available. Many of those recordings were made right here, on this very organ.

Born in England in 1906, Biggs emigrated to the United States in 1930, and settled in Cambridge in 1932. By that time he had already begun to build a name for himself as a touring concert organist.

In 1937, Biggs persuaded Charles Kuhn, then Curator of the Busch-Reisinger Museum, to let the Aeolian-Skinner Organ Company of Boston install their experimental Baroque-style organ, designed by the famous G. Donald Harrison (another Englishman) in the Romanesque Hall, which many people had already realised would make an ideal location for a concert organ. This instrument caused quite a stir in the musical world; Biggs played the complete organ works of Bach on it in 1937/38. In 1940 he began a famous series of Sunday morning coast-to-coast broadcasts on CBS radio from here that for many people of that generation was their introduction to organ music.

In 1954 Biggs made a tour of Europe, playing on many historic organs. This confirmed his growing dissatisfaction with the G. Donald Harrison instrument, and he conceived the notion of commissioning a new instrument for the hall from Flentrop, a Dutch builder whose instruments were known for their inspired re-interpretation of the Baroque models. In 1957 the instrument arrived; in 1958 CBS canceled the weekly broadcasts! Biggs, undaunted, immediately began an ambitious series of recordings for CBS records, which ultimately included three volumes of Bach favourites (including the D minor Toccata and Fugue) and much other music both solo and with other instruments. For many organists these records were their introduction to a new kind of playing, informed by historical scholarship, that came as a revelation. Biggs continued to play recitals and record on this instrument up to his death in 1977.

The instrument is in classic "Werk-prinzip" formation, that is to say, each division is clearly delineated architecturally. The Great manual (Hoofdwerk) is in the middle on top, with the Brustwerk underneath. The big pedal pipes are in towers on either side, and the Rückpositiv (which in England used to be called the "Chaire" organ) is on the front of the gallery, behind the organist's seat. The stops are all those which Bach would have known, and the connection between keys and pipes is entirely mechanical ("Tracker")—unlike the G. Donald Harrison instrument, which had electric action. The pipes, voiced on low wind pressure and placed on the historic form of slider chests, have a gentle, alive quality of sound, and the open-toe, unnicked voicing gives an articulate quality. This instrument was among the first examples (and for many years by far the most prominent) of the "Baroque" or historical organ revival; Flentrop subsequently installed many other instruments throughout the United States. This organ therefore had and continues to have a profound effect on organ building and organ playing throughout this country. - from the Harvard Organ Society website


Cathedral of the Holy Cross

E. & G. G. Hook & Hastings, Opus 801, 1875


At 364 feet long, 90 feet wide, and 120 feet high, with a seating capacity of 1,700, Holy Cross Cathedral is the largest church in New England.  Dedicated in December 1875, it was built of locally quarried Roxbury puddingstone and Quincy granite to designs of noted ecclesiastical architect Patrick C. Keely.  The advent of cast-iron construction permitted exceptionally slender nave columns supporting the largest wooden vault of its time.  An unfashionably remote location – the former site of the town gallows -- betrays Anglo-Saxon Protestant Boston’s ambivalence toward waves of "foreign" immigrants for whom the new cathedral’s completion after nine years of construction was a signal achievement. - Ross Wood

Photo by Len Levasseur

Photo by Len Levasseur

The 1875 Hook & Hastings organ at Holy Cross Cathedral is the largest extant organ built by the firm. 


All Saints Parish, Ashmont

C.B. Fisk, Op. 103, 1993


Skinner Organ Company, Op. 708, 1929


C.B. Fisk, Op. 103:

The visual design for Opus 103 was developed to harmonize with the architecture of this the first church designed by Ralph Adams Cram. The design was created within a scale model, which allowed the designers to view the case from all angles, including the tower entrance. The organ speaks down the length of the nave from a new gallery designed by architect William Buckingham, a member of the parish. The sculptural quality and decoration of the quarter-sawn white oak organ reflects, but does not compete with, the lavish carvings in the chancel and in the exquisite Lady Chapel.

A singular feature is the rear façade rank, facing the great tower window. The Tower Diapason supports the singing of those seated in the tower and provides an echo effect for the listeners in the nave. Instruments facing two sides are not uncommon in England, Italy and Spain; the unique architectural setting at All Saints' provides the ideal opportunity to achieve this arrangement in America.

Skinner, Op. 708:

In 2012, in the midst of the final stages planning for the restoration of our historic buildings, the Parish was afforded a unique opportunity to acquire a vintage Skinner organ from a closed church in North Adams, Massachusetts. Ideal in size, sound and pedigree, Skinner Organ Co.'s Opus 708 was a welcome and timely solution to the problem of All Saints' failing chancel organ.

(The former chancel organ, Hutchings-Votey Organ Co.'s Op. 1482 from 1902, never seems to have been musically adequate for the needs of the Parish. It underwent a series of well-intentioned but ultimately unsuccessful rebuilds over the course of the 20th century. By 2012, it was only partially playable and could not adequately accompany choral singing.)

Thanks to a generous gift, the Parish was able to acquire and store Op. 708 on site, arranged through organ consultant and parishioner Jonathan Ambrosino, organ restorer Joe Sloane, and the help of many church volunteers. Mr. Ambrosino and his team's restoration and installation were timed to coincide with the completion of the church restoration project in early 2015.

Skinner organs excel at choral accompaniment—a critical requirement at All Saints, where the chancel organ's primary role is to support the Choir of Men and Boys. Op. 708 was built at the firm's subsidiary plant in Westfield, Massachusetts, in 1929. The construction quality is superb, representing the finest materials and craftsmanship of the period. The instrument was in a remarkable state of preservation when acquired, and its installation at All Saints involved a complete historical restoration, along with the minor re-engineering necessary to make the instrument conform to the space available in Ashmont's chancel organ chamber.

The organ's original 20 stops and 23 ranks are in three divisions and a pedal, with the Swell and Choir under expression. The console is fitted with a number of assists that enhance its function and flexibility as a fine accompaniment instrument. The Skinner joins the Centennial Organ—C.B. Fisk's Opus 103—which leads congregational singing and provides a fine instrument for solo literature. This two-organ arrangement creates an ideal environment to support the Parish's ambitious music program.

- material from the All Saints Parish website

Goddard Chapel, Tufts University

Hook & Hastings, Op. 1134, 1883


At the time of its dedication in 1883, Goddard Chapel was much-admired by Boston-area newspapers and magazines for both its exterior and interior design. Architect J. Phillip Rinn, who subsequently designed Barnum Hall and a portion of the Metcalf Dormitory at Tufts, chose Lombardic Romanesque style for the chapel. Indeed, both the chapel’s hundred foot bell tower and its cloister, a covered porch on the chapel’s east side, are distinctly Romanesque features. The exterior stone for the chapel, a blue-gray slate, was quarried locally in Somerville. Rinn’s plans for the chapel included ivy to cover or “soften” the austerity of the stone-work.

Complimenting the exterior, the interior sanctuary also followed medieval Romanesque motifs. Particularly notable are the ribbed ceiling and the arched woodwork above the stained-glass windows. A variety of woods was used in the construction of the chapel interior. The pews, the pulpits, and ceiling ribs are made of cherry; the floors are made of oak; and the paneling is made of spruce. With only minor exceptions, all of the original woodwork is intact. - from the Tufts Chaplaincy website

The organ is located on the left side of the chancel matched by a sacristy on the right side. During the 1950's, the chapel was "modernized" by removing the cherry stained wood decorations and panels in front of the case pipes. A screen was erected covering the entire upper portion of the organ. This was matched on the other side by removing the same wood pieces and stained glass panels, which made up the lower part of the design. Three of these panels were hung on a wall in the foyer of the chapel. The ceiling was painted blue and the front panels of the chapel were painted white to brighten the room.

Andover Organ Company was contracted not only to rebuild the organ, but also to remove the 1950’s panels and restore the entire front of the chapel, including the woodwork and stained glass panels. Fortunately there was a photograph showing the original front of the chapel and we were able to reconstruct the missing pieces. In searching the basement for any remains of the original woodwork, Jay Zoller and Al Hosman found, in a pile of rubble designated to go the dump, a fourth stained glass panel that was located on the side of the sacristy. It was in bad shape, but now has been restored. The gold painted case pipes were originally covered in a copper powder that matched the coppery colors of the stained glass. The case pipes were stripped and recovered in a copper powder.

While the organ was removed, the University had the ceiling stripped of its blue paint and the front panels stripped of their white paint. The result of the entire process is stunning and close to the original look of the chapel. - from the Andover Organ company website

St. Cecilia Parish

Smith & Gilbert, 1999


Saint Cecilia's bears eloquent testimony to the demographics of fashionable 19th-century Boston.  Irish staff who served Back Bay families had long appealed to their bishop for a church closer to their live-in employment.  Finally in 1888 this highly improbable site was eeked out, upon which the parish erected the present church by 1894 thanks to countless small contributions.  A sober red brick exterior quickly discards its reticence within.  Recent renovations proved exceptionally sympathetic to the church's original fabric, including its generous acoustic. - Ross Wood

In 1902 the Hutchings-Votey Organ Company of Boston installed a three-manual organ in St. Cecilia Church, opus 1465. The instrument of twenty-four speaking stops had electric action, and stood in the very center of the rear gallery in one case. The organ builders were George S. Hutchings (1835-1913), who started business in 1869, and Edwin Scott Votey (1856-1931), pioneer in the perfection of the player piano, who was Hutchings’ partner from 1901 to 1907. In 1902, the factory was on 23-37 Irvington Street in Boston (and in 1905-1908 at Albany Street in Cambridge near Massachusetts Avenue, before moving to Waltham, MA.)

St. Cecilia Church was first renovated in 1954. Part of the project included installation of the Assumption window in the rear gallery, right behind the Hutchings organ. In order to accommodate the window, and to overcome growing mechanical difficulties with the organ, Rostron Kershaw of Lowell was hired to construct a new three manual organ. Roy Carlson of Magnolia, Massachusetts developed the tonal design for the new thirty-two stop instrument. About half of the organ’s pipework was recycled from the Hutchings, but redistributed to conform to the new scheme. By 1995 the Kershaw organ’s mechanical reliability was in question. The Kershaw installation left various components inaccessible for maintenance. Also, the tonal design had proved to limit the organist’s flexibility in playing a smooth service or in faithfully rendering various styles of organ literature. In addition, the organ’s pitch was A=427, not the standard A=440 set in the 1920’s for orchestral instruments.

Work began in January of 1998. All pipes were removed, cleaned, cut to pitch, and put back on speech. Most of the organ’s 2,300 pipes were found to be unmusical in tone. Theodore Gilbert, organ builder from Wilbraham, Massachusetts with fifty years of organ building experience as a voicer and finisher for the Austin, Casavant, and Aeolian-Skinner Organ Companies, gave a heart and soul to the new organ. He was brought into the project to reconstruct and re-scale these pipes. This painstaking process was done with the unified whole in mind, to produce a new organ of variety, color and expressive quality. A. R. Schopp’s Sons of Alliance, Ohio, restored the reed stops, completing sets that had been changed by Carlson in 1954. The Kershaw console was replaced with a four-manual Austin console from Cleveland, Ohio, solidly reliable and complete with ivory keys. Every effort was made to improve the organ’s layout for maximum tonal effects and ease of maintenance.

Allan Taylor of Feeding Hills, Massachusetts, completely rewired the entire organ, designing a new solid state switching relay to control the organ’s electrical connections. New D.C.-servo motors were installed for the expression shades. Andrew Smith of Cornish, N. H., rebuilt off-set windchests and created racking for the restored reed stops. Jonathan Moretz of Boston Building Doctors supervised the reconstruction of the expression chambers and the new decking above each chamber to Timothy E. Smith’s specifications. Southfield Organ Builders of Springfield, Massachusetts, constructed a new unit windchest. The site work, requiring hundreds of hours of cleaning, rebuilding, relocating, and on-site fabricating, was completed by a team including Gabriel Cantor, Gregory Dixon, Christian Grove, Gregory Hyde, Peter Hyde, Benjamin Little, Adam Mittleman, Nathan Schreiber, Gregory Serapiglia, Helen and Carlyle Smith, David Steakley, and Eric Weisman. Most are residents of Framingham, Massachusetts, and a neighborhood in that town is call Nobscot. Without their effort, the project could not have succeeded.

On Sunday, November 21, 1999 the gallery organ was blessed during the parish liturgy by Msgr. Michael F. Groden, Pastor of St. Cecilia Parish. It was dedicated in concert by organist Richard J. Clark on November 22, 1999, the Feast of Saint Cecilia.

Soon to follow was the installation of an antiphonal division of seven ranks, located near the front of the church, underneath the Saint Cecilia Window. Built in the 1960’s by Robert Noehren, it was removed from St. Ignatius Episcopal Church in Antioch, Illinois. Reconstruction began in July 2000 by Adam Mittleman and Timothy Smith. Its inaugural liturgy was on the Feast of the Assumption, August 15, 2000. Soon after, Smith and Gilbert began reshaping its tonal design to tailor the organ to St. Cecilia Parish’s very specific liturgical needs. Furthermore, part of this retailoring included extensive wiring by Allen Taylor making the organ playable from both its own 2 manual console, and from the 4 manual console in the gallery. An 1850 W. B. D. Simmons case was refurbished by Andrew Smith of Cornish, New Hampshire and was installed in October of 2001. The completed Antiphonal Organ was dedicated in concert by organists Timothy E. Smith and Richard J. Clark on November 18, 2001.

In 2012 the four-manual Austin Console was replaced by the Aeolian Skinner console from St. Phillip Cathedral in Atlanta, Georgia. Modified to the Specifications of the St. Cecilia Organs, it features 64 levels of memory making it a far more versatile instrument than ever before in its history.

The most recent additions to the organ include two significant ranks: a 32’ Contra Bourdon and a 32’ Contra Bombarde bringing this formidable instrument to fifty-two ranks and 2,950 pipes. -from the St. Cecilia Parish website

Photo by Len Levasseur

Photo by Len Levasseur