Historical and practical approaches to 20th-century organ restoration

by Jonathan Ambrosino

First, I wish to relay a word from Nelson Barden, who regrets that he had to forfeit the opportunity to speak this morning. However, after more than five years in his firm, exposure to his existing work and current jobs, numerous consultations, and endless discussions about restoration philosophies and practices, I am perhaps in a position to paraphrase much of what he might have said. He is a superb speaker though, and those of you who know him will appreciate the size of the shoes I must fill. In order to sail into lunch on a fat cloud of applause, I will of course steal all of his wisdom and give him none of the credit. It was only after swearing that I wouldn’t dare do such a thing that Mr. Barden gave me permission to deputize for him.

Another further footnote of honesty: my talk this morning will not attempt to amplify the OHS Guidelines. Naturally, as a historian and a new councilor of the OHS, I commend them to you. But you can figure them out for yourself better than I could ever explain them. They are simply stated and earnestly composed, not a chain of edicts, but a code of principles for the preservation old organs. In one tidy page, they sum up the story, and if you haven’t read them, I urge you to.

Instead, I would prefer to discuss what the guidelines imply, and that is the business of restoration. I’d like to start with a bit of restoration philosophy — why we restore old organs in the first place — then move to different approaches to restoration, and finally, to at least touch upon that gray area when more traditional rebuilding enters the arena of pure restoration — when alterations stop following the original builder’s intent and start following the restorer’s.

Any discussion of restoration is such an enormous topic that a forty-minute talk is barely the start. Some of you will find this discussion quite esoteric, others will complain that the surface is barely being scratched. My talk will deal primarily with organs built between the turn of the century and World War II, but probably most of what we’re discussing is applicable to all 20th century organs.

Theoretically, the restoration of the 20th century electro-pneumatic organ should be no different from the restoration of any other organ, but it is unfortunately not quite so. If you take a mechanical organ from 1860, a nice three-manual Hook for example, it is easy to regard it as an entity. Console connected to action connected to chests; chests connected to bellows connected to wind system. Usually, the building frame is all one piece, and the organ is quite likely to be an integrated unit of construction. The restoration and retabling of slide chests is a known factor; actions are well understood and easily put back as originally built, and enough organs remain to aid us in the realization of the original tonal scheme.

Now consider a 1930 Skinner. It may be housed in one location, the console another; the divisions are self-contained units with individual wind supplies, tremulants, etc., and can be spread about as needed. The separated nature of the instrument, and the freedom to alter pressures and placement, certainly paves an easier road for a drastic rebuild (of the kind, for instance, that Æolian-Skinner often performed on many an older Skinner organ). Added to this is a certain derisive modern perspective which looks upon this kind of organbuilding as the result of an unrelated design philosophy. It’s a tempting, idealistic myth which we need to put to bed. If we offered this explanation to EM Skinner, he would stab us with his umbrella, and hard, probably arguing that philosophy binds an organ together more than screws, glue and casework ever will. Good organbuilders create entities, and if we can simply approach their work on their terms, not our own, we should find the imprint of the builder’s sensibility (or lack of it) on every facet of the design, construction and tonal aesthetic. We must learn to adopt a similar open mind to works of our own builders, and not condemn a style simply for our own lack of exposure to it.

In addition, the whole time-frame of which I speak has received rotten press, and right from the eve of its decline. We are only just beginning to put a proper perspective on it. In one sense, such a phenomenon is merely the current incarnation of an age-old syndrome: the “Enormous Condescension of Posterity.” In the years after World War I, most 19th century organs were dismissed because they were difficult to play and couldn’t deal with transcriptions. In the 30s, most organs of the 20s were dismissed because they lacked ensemble. In the years following WWII, most pre-WWII organs were dismissed because they couldn’t play Bach. Around the mid-60s, most of the post-WWII organs were dismissed because they didn’t play Bach authentically. Now in the 1990s, most post 1960s organs are dismissed as exercises in false scholarship; not only were the organs nothing like their supposed inspiration, but authenticity is itself beginning to be denounced as a dubious goal! The latest pedagogy emphasizes that the spirit of the composer must be captured, but married to the performer’s personal understanding of that style. Since capturing the spirit of the composer requires an authentic organ, we return to restoration, for without restoration, there are no authentic organs. If we look in again on our hypothetical 1930 Skinner, which has now been out of fashion for three different generations at three increasing levels of bad taste, the latest phase adds its own twist by viewing the Skinner as a significant and unaltered relic. Currently, it will undergo one last round of scorn: its apparent lack of literature (under the preposterous premise that organbuilding becomes great only when it inspires great literature). The Skinner might not be understood — “This Swell five-rank mixture is terrific, but how do you use the Dolce Cornet?” Or my favorite, and admittedly with good reason, “Why is there a Nazard but no 2’ Piccolo in my Choir organ?” — but if the current generation can wait long enough to put these questions aside, they will be presented with a prime example of what the period offered. When the performance practice movement actually starts looking at the history of romantic performance itself, and its remarkable maturity in the very year 1930, they will suddenly start demanding authentic Skinners. I would hope to live so long.

Uncannily, with all these changes in taste, the instrument itself undergoes no changes, only some slight aging. Meanwhile, our perspective is the variable which has varied wildly. Once realizing this phenomenon, we will arrive at the two most important elements of organ restoration. First, if perspective is at the bottom of so much organ changing, then aren’t we changing things for the wrong reasons, that we want something different enough that we had better start afresh? And second, wouldn’t it be far kinder to history and church finances to secure an organist who likes a given instrument rather than to fund the desires of an organist who doesn’t like it? I realize these are not the kindest words, but when a Hook won’t play Karg-Elert or a Skinner won’t play Scheidt, the simplest thing to do is put a different score on the music rack and put away our tool boxes.

In restoration, we attempt to sidestep the entire issue of changing tastes, first by admitting that no age has ever had all the answers, and second, that in the pursuit of its own goals, every age has been capable of much harm. Ours shows more promise than most past ones, but there is still a good chance for serious damage. If we think highly enough of the past — and the current emphasis in organbuilding would indicate that we care very deeply about preserving the past — then we must be willing to give the past its due, to have some patience with its foibles. In the process, we are bound to learn something which will better us as musicians, builders and restorers.

It has been said many, many times that it is easier to burn a house than to build one, and as glorified woodworkers we should take note. Restorers who are the most successful today have done so through a very clever tactic: rather than juice up the pipework, or louden all the reeds, they take infinite pains, mechanically and tonally, to make an organ look and sound brand new, giving it every benefit of the doubt. We can take a look at their success a little later.

I want to conclude this philosophical ramble by reminding us all that not every organ is a Skinner, and not every Skinner is a good Skinner. (Translation: not every old organ is a good organ, and not every good organ is a masterpiece.) Clearly, there are organs which have never been judged good instruments, by their own era or any subsequent ones; clearly there have been those instruments whose mechanical design has doomed any tonal inspiration aspirations, and worse, a mechanically flawless instrument with go-nowhere tone; and clearly there are instruments that have always been inadequate, be it for lack of budget, placement, talent, or skill. I could wave the restoration banner for years, and these organs would still be rebuilt, and for good reason. Mediocre things usually don’t stand the test of time, and where they do, it’s because no one can afford to get rid of them.

However, if you are confronted with something first- or even second-rate for which you simply cannot muster the respect, or you have tonal aspirations, I would urge you not to accept the compromise of rebuilding an instrument. Try to find a good home for the existing instrument, and then go to work on a fine new job. It is my firm belief that in this fashion, you will give the old and new instruments the best of chances.

Let’s move on to a much more elemental consideration, and that is the business of restoration. For those of you who want to restore, let’s walk ourselves through the first tenet of restoration, and that is, change absolutely as little as possible, if anything at all. There are usually two reasons to change something; first, there is an inherent design flaw, which from all practical angles dooms the future of the organ. That’s a difficult issue which I would like to postpone a bit. Second, is the issue of changing something to make the job seemingly easier for the rebuilder. We have probably all seen examples when a lot of effort went into the simplification of a mechanism, or where stock components were used in place of the originals. In virtually every case, it would be difficult to imagine that any time or money was really saved, in fact quite the opposite.

Let’s use a simple example: Say you are in a small two manual Skinner, (excuse me, a small two-manual organ), and there are four reservoirs: a static, Great, Swell and Pedal Bourdon. If you’re billing your shop worker at $40/hour and it takes a week just to rebuild the reservoir, you’re looking at $1600 a unit just in the shop, not including materials costs. Or, you may not be experienced with Skinner reservoirs, and you don’t know a good subcontractor to help you out. So you head for your catalog shelf. I see Randy Wagner out there, and wonder if he could tell me, off-hand, the price for a new 3x5 single-rise reservoir. $800 to $1000? Thanks. You then scratch your head and think, well I could never do a reservoir for $800. I’ll just buy four new ones. They come on a truck, the truck comes to your door—on the surface, it all seems so simple. The old ones are broken; something new will make the job easier.

Dig a little deeper, and watch Chiff Creek widen into Copula Canyon, because your first attempt at such a job may prove a revelation. You spend an alarming amount of time merely removing the old reservoirs; you then spend a more alarming amount of time getting the new ones in. But these new reservoirs have self-contained valves, unlike the Skinner with the hang-down cone-valve box; this means that none of the old ductwork fits the new reservoirs, and certainly none of the existing structure wants to support them. You spend the morning at the lumber-yard buying poplar for new legs (while the old sugar-pine legs grumble in the unemployment line of your lumber rack), and by the end of the day, you’ve merely supported your new reservoirs.

Next comes the matter of ductwork. If this were a simple slide chest organ, it would be one duct in, another out. But this is a Skinner! There is an intake, one if not two J-shaped-ducts to the stop action box, and at least one if not several 4-inch lines for the bass chests. And that’s just the Great. In the Swell, don’t forget the additional three-inch line for the tremulant, and most likely a two-inch from unregulated wind to the swell-motor. Since none of the old ducts fits, you either a) use flexible hose and new plastic flanges or b) sever them and introduce flexible hose joints. And while only stupid historians make second guesses, I would bet hard zinc that Ernest Skinner would never have lived to an age at which he would sanction the use of flexible hose. If you were to respect the aesthetic of the original installation, which is an important part of true restoration, you would spend considerable time and sweat readying new galvanized steel ductlines.

Unless you are an extremely skilled and quick worker, this job will have turned into a money-losing proposition, and then, when the new reservoirs do not behave like the old ones, into a nightmare. Here is a situation where something new seemed to be the equivalent of the old, and all aesthetic considerations aside, it took more time than merely regussetting and rehinging the reservoirs. It’s hardly the only example of such substitution. For many years, Skinner double-primaries were reduced to single-stage using different magnets. In addition to violating one of Skinner’s elemental design principles of a super-quick action with a low-power magnet, such modifications raise all sorts of problems in the long run, not the least of which is trying to fit new magnets into either Skinner or Æolian-Skinner magnet borings. Similarly, from this perspective, it is surprising that so many whiffle-tree engines are replaced by electro-servo motors — not that one is inherently better, but from a strictly economical standpoint. The overhaul of a whiffletree engine is one of the simplest tasks in organbuilding, and instead of paying the money out to a supplier, you get to process the work through your shop, and you save the bother of new linkages. Likewise, the replacement of original pneumatic tremulants with electric-motor varieties. Or the replacement of the original magnets. If you are committed to keeping the old mechanisms, you are likely to find ways that are simply much cheaper and easier than replacement. And on and on.

Of course, there is always the time required to master the techniques of doing over certain less-than-simple mechanisms. A double-primary key action does take some work, no doubt about it. But once mastered, they are not difficult, and certainly take about the same time as trying to modify them into something else. Furthermore, you have not violated the design, and all the reasons for which it exists; you have attempted to match the original work in fit, finish and quality; and Ernest Skinner won’t come stabbing your nightmares with his umbrella. Wing-nuts on the magnet box yes; umbrella no.

You can follow this logic all the way through other builders and other mechanism designs. At the end of this path of reason lies one unbreakable rule: don’t direct-electrify an Austin. I’m not saying this to be funny, there at least two examples of it I know of, and large organs too. It was the saddest story you ever saw. Here is perhaps the system most designed to be easily rebuilt, and from the start it was expected to be replaced with factory-supplied exchange parts. (Although several firms do restore the original pneumatics, and make beautiful work of it.) However, when Don Austin stands gleefully over the fax machine, rubbing his hands together in anticipation of your order for 183 “relay motors,” there can be especially no excuse for altering this design. Save yourself and the organ a lot of trouble, time and money, and leave well enough alone.

Let’s say you accept all this, and are determined to keep the organ just as it was, and all the mechanisms are of designs which permit practical restoration. Ethical Problem Number One: The Church has more money than your estimated restoration proposal. Your first thought: now I can add that seven-rank mixture and horizontal Tuba Mirabilis Harmonique! For the moment, let’s consider tonal changes or additions Ethical Problem Number Two, and go back to one solution to ethical problem number one. We might call this How to Make Money without Making Tonal Changes.

Once you have drawn out your estimate, there are several questions to ask yourself on some easily-forgotten restoration issues, ones that will help the organ in the long run, enable you to provide your client with a better restoration, and raise their level of pride in the instrument to the point at which it continues to be loved and well-maintained. And put more work on your order book, naturally. They involve the Blower Room, Chamber, Access and Lighting issues, Cleanliness, and Environment.

The first is the blower room, the most overlooked and critical area of the organ. Given that this is where the organ breathes, the blower room should be as spotless as a bathroom, and yet we all know how few actually are. The blower itself must be running smoothly and happily. In former decades, it was popular to replace original static reservoirs with Spencer Airflow regulators. That’s a quick fix that unfortunately is economical and easy. Unfortunate, because speaking at least from experience with Skinner organs, Spencer valves are only a superficial substitute for real statics. These little units are simply insufficient to cut down on the inherent turbulence of the blower fans, and they let blower roar and jitters enter the wind supply. The Skinner at Yale’s Woolsey Hall lost its statics to Spencer valves, and a careful listen reveals a certain amount of dithering and impurity as a result. The organ’s horrified curators are desperate to replace them as soon as funds permit.

Last, but most important, is the quality of air which the blower is allowed to breathe. A filtered air supply is so simple to provide that it really should become the standard for all blower room restorations. It can be as simple as installing a grate in a doorway and blocking it with a filter in a sleeve. Harley Piltingsrud, the man who has worked tirelessly to provide the organ industry with age-resistant leathers, has also spent considerable effort developing customized air filtration systems. We should all take the time to learn more about this; I know very little about them myself. But since the incoming air affects everything else in the instrument, this element of “restoration” cannot be taken too seriously.

Moving on from the blower room, a second consideration in your restoration estimate should be ways to make the organ easier to access and to maintain. If you make it pleasant to work inside the organ, people will look forward to tuning and maintenance, and ultimately to the next restoration. In 1925, electric light must still have been so novel that Skinner, Austin and Kimball thought they were being generous by giving you forty watts per chamber. We have either become blind or demanding, but no historian is going to criticize you for adding lights to an organ, because we certainly can’t fix what we can’t see. Furthermore, if you light the organ nicely, then you can take the organ committee through the instrument and illuminate all your fine work. Carrying this theme a little further, you might wish to assess the care with which an original installation was executed. Theatre organ people often complain that Wurlitzers, even the great and famous ones, were slung in with little regard for any kind of maintenance. Most other instruments are better from this standpoint, and my personal high marks go to Kimball, especially in the 30s, for keeping the maintenance personnel in mind when designing their organs and mechanisms. However, there are definite cases in which even the most skilled designer could not foresee the realities of organ placement, and what may have worked on the drafting board was less-than-ideal in wood and rackboards.

The Æolian-Skinner organ at the Groton School, the 1935 G. Donald Harrison which effectively began the American Classic movement, is a perfect illustration of both blower room and access issues. This instrument had a perfectly awful blower situation in the basement. The blower was housed in a basement room. The room flooded constantly, so that the wood floor on which the blower sat had rotted mostly away. The nice old Spencer tipped precipitously, and after many decades of constant use had severely out-of-balance shafts and worn bearings. The air supply was filtered, in the sense that the air came through a tiny window in which there was a screen, and that screen was constantly a solid wall of autumn leaves, often wet with old rain.

As a summer organ project, the Barden team moved the blower to the opposite side of the room for complete overhaul, while a new concrete slab poured. The blower was replaced on the new floor, the statics releathered, supporting structure checked and restored as necessary. Then, the whole room was plastered and painted, and the blower itself painted in two shades of gray, its patent plaque spiffed up. Two finishing touches were new bright lights throughout the room and a filtered air supply rerouted to draw ambient air from the Chapel itself. The final and most important part of restoration was the securing of an edict forbidding any use of the room for storage of non-organ materials. The room is now so pleasant that the organist shows it off to visitors; the few extra hours of time to add the visual pleasantries gave the School confidence to move ahead with the rest of the organ restoration.
Turning to the organ chamber itself, we are confronted with a real devil, a long, narrow tall room which hosted an installation worthy of Æolian at their most resourceful. (When one thinks of all the strikes against this instrument, it is all the more amazing the influence it had on American organbuilding.) Even the amazingly talented Perry Martin, Ernest Skinner’s cousin who was the firm’s chief draftsman from the late teens through the late forties, fell down in the design of this job, not for getting everything in, which he did, but for planning access to the various departments. Installing one new elevated walkboard and moving two other small ones, plus a new lighting system which flooded the chamber, meant that you could easily see the problems in the organ and then get to them without hurting yourself. Like the lights, you can’t fix what you can’t reach, let alone tune and regulate. These small things allow the workers to keep up their spirit for getting good work done, especially in this case when the job is an hour’s drive from the shop. The last thing you need is to have an hour’s dread before work. In the long run, when the next generation comes along to work on the organ, they certainly won’t be cursing Perry Martin.

Getting back to your restoration proposal, a third thing to check whether your estimate includes, and that is all the cleaning you can possibly do. If you can’t clean, you can’t restore; the first tool in restoration is a terrific vacuum cleaner, and the second is a pair of knee pads. Cleaning pipework is obvious; if you have never heard an organ dirty, versus the same organ cleaned, the results may astonish you. While the general character is the same, the degree of life is often far greater once the organ has been cleaned. Once you have the pipework and the chamber clean, it is a logical step to repaint and plaster as necessary. Giving the chamber nice hard surfaces, encouraging all possible reflection of tone, will make the organ sound better and lend credence to the whole project.

Another thing to be emphasized is the wind system, because some very good builders went through periods of not getting wind systems absolutely right. I’m thinking of Æolian-Skinner from around 1935, when they began using low wind pressures but spend many years getting the shakiness out of the wind. Since Harrison writes over and over of his desire for steady wind, a restorer cannot be blamed for improving the wind supply of a problematic Æolian-Skinner. In the mid to late 30s, there are often difficulties related to back pressure, for instance, because they were still using blowers which delivered about eight-inch wind, which the static only cut down to about six. It is a bit much to ask an innocent reservoir to cut six inches to two and a quarter, in the case of most Positiv organs. Another difficulty relates to winkers, which are often too large and impossible to regulate. Put this on a Positiv, and you have a kind of live wind which would have horrified the organ’s designer. Smaller, gated winkers, or even step-down reservoirs, are logical, suitable answers to situations in which real problems exist. But, make them out of sugar pine, or better yet, find old ones and restore them.

The final thing that you should do to protect both your firm and your emotional involvement in the project is to ensure that the organ is in a safe environment. This goes for any organ project, new, old, rebuild, restoration. We could do an entire session on water damage, so prevalent was the use of flat roofs over organ chambers in church buildings of the teens and 20s. It is essential to get the organ out of harm’s way, and get harm’s way out of the organ, otherwise all of your hard work will be for naught. Even when insurance will cover the damage from, say, a construction worker’s severing of a sprinkler line, who wants to face the prospect of retracing such enormous steps? One colleague has been restoring a ventil-chest Æolian, particularly tricky to restore. Unfortunately, the building sustained a leak and one whole division is damaged. It is entirely understandable that after such arduous work, this particular restorer has no desire to face it again.

In his case, the fault was a contractor’s, so no amount of legwork and preparation could have saved the job. However, you owe it to yourself to investigate the environment of the organ you are to be restoring. Any evidence of water damage should be further investigated. This is properly considered the Church’s responsibility, but it does not hurt to take an hour’s time to get up on the roof yourself and assess what the likelihood of leaks is. Sometimes, steam radiators or water/ steam or sewer pipes run through organ chambers. Get them out, especially the sewer pipes. (Obviously, this tends to be more of a concern with basement installations, so it falls more in the domain of residence organs. But electro-pneumatic organs have certainly ended up in all kinds of places; give the Æolian company a disused elevator shaft and watch them install forty ranks. But when it comes to questions of environment, do yourself and the instrument a favor, and use as much of a crystal ball as is at your disposal.

One last aside: just as you change as little as possible, you should remove as little as possible in your restoration. There is no reason to hoist out a pitman chest when you can take the important parts individually, and then return to clean up the chest on-site. Removal of such large objects only increases your liability and the chance for damage. And often, it’s just plain unnecessary.

To any restorer, these situations we’ve covered reflect the more straightforward restoration considerations. Everything I’ve described assumes that an organ is restorable, is in original condition, there is funding and the church wants a restoration. If any of these conditions is un-met, and yet you feel strongly that the organ should be restored, you will have an uphill political battle. Let’s consider one example in each of these other situations.

The first condition is when an organ, or parts of it, appear unrestorable. This is a huge topic all its own, and we should probably center on the two most common factors, chestwork and a certain range of consoles.

There are all sorts of convoluted early electro-pneumatic chest designs. One of the most common is the design which uses the chest separators as the pouchrails, with the valves attached by lever arms; the wind is then channeled up the separator and across the topboard. This is the kind of chest you’ll find in Hutchings organs from 1893 onward, in all Æolian organs until 1928 (that means almost 800 organs), and in the first 75 or so Skinner organs, up until around 1908 or 09. It is unclear who designed this chest, because Edwin Votey (of Farrand & Votey, Hutchings-Votey, Aeolian-Votey, and Votey all by himself) seemed to come up with something quite like it in the mid 1890s, but so did EM Skinner in 1893. Skinner attached a pitman action to it in 1898, and with this design carried on for a decade before devising the ever-so-simple but brilliant solution of mounting the pouchrail directly beneath the table. The new chest had the distinct advantage of accessibility and restorability; only twenty-something #14 screws later, the pouchrail is down, a unit separate from the table and separator framework of the chest. In the lever-arm chest, the separator or siderail is an integral component of the chest, and in most known instances was glued in place. Furthermore, the pouches require an incredible amount of dish, which can be tricky to get just right. To restore them, one either knocks the chest apart, lies for hours and hours and hours on one’s back releathering the chests in place, or removes the chests from the chamber, and can get them upside down in the shop.

Why all the bother? Why not just direct electrify them, or replace them with something new? Once more, here is the difference between veneration and respect. If you get to know something about Æolian, you will realize that they used this style of chest for numerous reasons; first, it was compact (you had to have a good system for getting those forty ranks into that chimney); second, it was remarkably quick and quiet, remembering again that much roll-played music of the era required a super-fast action that could repeat and do it quietly in a sedate residential atmosphere. Furthermore, the way in which the wind is channeled through the separator and across the topboard creates, in effect, an expansion chamber for every pipe, and if you are convinced that replacement is the only way, you need to ensure that you are going to duplicate the conditions under which the pipe speaks. And after you get through the design, the duplication of racks and toes, you will probably find that after all that trouble, restoring the old chests is still the simplest and easiest route. The difficulty in these situations is knowing what is really involved, judging the implications of changing the mechanism, determining whether it is really necessary, and if you’re uneasy about the work, deciding whether you are really the firm for the job.

Second, let’s talk about the console, the easiest member of the electro-pneumatic family to separate from its parent. Can a restoration be a true restoration when the console is gutted and fitted with solid state? The answer must be no. But, you ask, why retain all the electro-pneumatic switching and remote machines, when you can replace them with something that will not decay, that offers more flexibility and such freedom from maintenance? There is no easy answer to that question, but it boils down to two clear issues pro and con. I am in a difficult position because I feel very strongly on both sides. On the one hand, if you are to respect the philosophy of the builder, you will respect every element of that philosophy to the point of changing nothing. Skinner in particular had extremely strong views on console design, and the fact that the combination action movement be directly connected to knob. He hated pneumatic remote control for its bulkiness (although the six built before 1930 were so elegant it’s a shame they didn’t continue). He also devoted a lot of time to perfecting the tactile feel of a console, the weighting and throw of knobs and tablets, the particular resistance of pistons, swell shoes and toe studs. Surely many of you have seen the “drag” pneumatics in a horizontal-trace Skinner console, the ones which provide tension for the knobs, but which release when a general is pushed to ease the burden on the power pneumatics? This is a minor but critical reflection of the overall aesthetic. Therefore, my concern with gutting a console is that it often provides dazzling efficiency and versatility at an aesthetic compromise. There is also the reality that as long as there are sheep and horses, there will be leather and glue; ordinary organbuilding techniques will keep an electro-pneumatic console alive indefinitely.

On the other hand, it must be remembered that when such organs were built, organists were trained to do amazing feats of hand-registration, which almost no organist is taught now. I recently attended a Master Class in which two of the five students expected that there be a sequencer or list function, and had difficulties with the routine operation of divisional pistons. And we are not making music in museums. If you take the aesthetic of the organ from 1900 to 1930 especially, the performers were after kaleidoscopic color. Where is John Fesperman to so eloquently argue against the need for all combination actions in that they promote kaleidoscopic degeneracy? I may be a kaleidoscopic degenerate, but modern organists should not have to struggle in their efforts to create kaleidoscopic nuance.

So you can see, this is a very difficult topic, one which the top restorers are currently hashing out. For all practical purposes, the question probably needs to be handled on a case by case basis. In a setting without a big recital series or where the organ is not used as ambitiously as it might, I would tend to favor restoration, because there is little practical gain in alteration; in a prominent setting with multiple organists, an ambitious music program and a recital series, there can be no argument that a multi-level combination action has its merits.

Here are two compromises. A replacement console, where space and funds permit, allow an old console to remain, either in place, restored and usable, or in storage as an historic artifact. The second compromise applies solely to consoles with nice pneumatic knob machines fired remotely, such as Æolian-Skinners built after 1936, or every Æolian console with moving combinations. In these instances, there is often little reason to gut the console, none whatsoever; it is much simpler to restore these elegant knob machines, retaining the original toggle action and feel of the console, while incorporating a solid state memory, its control panel neatly tucked away in a pull-out drawer. In this case, the only discernible difference is the unanimity with which the knobs fire; a general is going to give a little more punch from a solid-state memory than from a pneumatic one. This has got to be considered a small compromise against the increased memory capability of a solid-state system. In an ideal situation, the electronic memory is piggy-backed onto the mechanical memory, which is then treated as level one.

When an organ is not in original mechanical and tonal condition, or has been rebuilt several times, and you are called in to “sort things out,” you face some of the most difficult decisions, especially if the organ has been notable at some point in its time. An interesting example is the 1901 Murray Harris organ in Stanford University Memorial Church. It was added to by Skinner in 1924, then by Æolian-Skinner in 1936 with a new console, then messed around with further by some local people in more recent decades. It almost got disposed of when a new Fisk was contracted for the gallery, but the authorities were convinced of its merits, and it remained. It then got a new console in Murray Harris style, built by Rosales in 1982. And now Bay Area organbuilder John DeCamp has a chance to restore the organ. But to what period?

In this case, some of the Skinner and Æolian-Skinner additions have already been removed; those which remain fall well within the original aesthetic of the organ, and they augment it in scale and style. The later alterations do not, and they are being replaced. This organ is never again going to be in its 1901 state, but it can at least be rationalized, and treated in such a way that the Murray Harris aesthetic comes first, and the various guests behave themselves in like fashion.

Another example is Princeton University Chapel, 1928 Skinner Organ and one of the earliest significant examples of G. Donald Harrison’s influence on the Skinner organ. It was highly regarded by everyone but its organist, Ralph Downes, who almost immediately started to make changes. A few years later, Carl Weinrich changed more things, and then Æolian-Skinner did a drastic and not very successful rebuild in the 1950s. The organ became neglected, some imported reeds got put in, and the organ ended up being something of a mess, both tonally and mechanically.

It would have been quite a trial, but the organ could have been restored. However, the client had no desire to return to 1928, nor really did the builder. They wanted all the good things of that instrument incorporated into the framework of an entirely new instrument. N.P. Mander did the work, resulting in an essentially a new organ mechanically with about sixty percent of the pipework retained from the old organ, quite an amazing figure for us, more the norm in an English rebuild project. The Princeton organ is now more successful than at any time since its inauguration, but it is hardly a Skinner organ. It partakes of several different personalities, while essentially its own instrument. Although Mander’s produced a fine instrument, it is hardly what they would have done on their own. I often wonder what might have happened ten or fifteen years later. Princeton’s was such an important Skinner that it seems regrettable it wasn’t restored.

To broach the subject of tonal additions, let’s consider Rockefeller Chapel at the University of Chicago, a sister Skinner to the Princeton organ which was largely rebuilt in the early 70s. Although very little restoration work has actually taken place thus far, the Rockefeller authorities have opted for a complete tonal restoration, even to the point of replicating stops missing stops. The original switching system is gone, and in all likelihood will be replaced with solid state. However, an interesting discussion arose during some earlier deliberations there, because one of the bidders suggested an approach which said that the project should take into account additions or alterations the builder himself might have carried out had he been given the chance to return to the job after a period of time. I was a bit intrigued by this concept for two reasons. First, from correspondence we know that in the Chicago instrument, Skinner was forced to do certain things against his will, most notably the enclosure of the Great reeds in the Choir box when he felt the chamber placement demanded unenclosed reeds. Second, this Builder’s Restoration philosophy essentially stated that if we provide some more “expected” stops (such as an independent Choir chorus, or real Great trumpets in addition to the customary Skinner Trombas), that the organ would be more acceptable to a broader range of organists. There is something to this argument, that if someone talented can add a tasteful Cornet, then it will prevent a poor one from being demanded in the future, and in the larger picture, save an instrument from some harm. Ultimately, however, this is merely a clever spin on an old excuse for more rebuilding, imposing our will on old instruments. If we are intelligent enough to want to add the “right” things, we should be intelligent enough to have pause before we, too, become rebuilders, even seemingly sensitive ones. Adding Great Trumpets to a Skinner would be just as foreign to EM’s style as it would to add Great Trumpets to a G. Donald Harrison Æolian-Skinner; neither builder wanted them, and each felt the literature was served with entire satisfaction without them. If the organ simply isn’t doing its job musically in the context of worship, and such stops are necessary, the issues take on a different resonance. But in so many instances, such is really not the case; the issues boil down to matters of taste, and when they do, it is very difficult to justify additions or changes, other than simply to admit we want them.

If you must add to an organ, and if you really feel you’re doing what is in the organ’s best interests, then add something plausible, and above all, ravishing, be it a flute celeste or a mixture, something so beautiful that only the purists like Ambrosino will complain of its presence. Additions are always to be favored over changes, because even though additions nearly always violate the desires of the original designer (such as Great reeds on a G. Donald Harrison), they at least allow the original design to be heard on its own if desired. And furthermore, additions are so easy to remove.

Before we move to questions, I want to sum up my thoughts. The aim of restoration is not to live in a museum, where instruments need not necessarily work, nor is it ultimately concerned with preserving outmoded styles of playing or building, which are clearly part of the past and not of today. Rather is restoration concerned with preserving the precise origin of the instrument, an experience available only through meticulous restoration and preservation. Much reckless work denies us this experience, and in too many instances, such work ultimately comes to be regarded as not only mistaken, but doubly expensive. Alterations have rarely added anything significant or of lasting value to a fine pipe organ, and undoing mistakes is the costliest sort of restoration. So, if you come across something that even has the slightest merit, step back, take pause, get out your guidelines, and for Heaven’s sake, call the OHS. Thank you.