The state of organ restoration and conservation in America today

by Jonathan Ambrosino

The title given to my paper has, to me, an old-time journalistic ring to it; one can faintly hear the teletype machine in the background. To clue you in a bit further, I was specifically asked to discuss America’s treatment and care of twentieth-century organs, perhaps as something vaguely preparatory to our visit to Liverpool’s Metropolitan Cathedral, with its landmark instrument from a period we may not yet consider historic. Or do we? I’ve never heard the organ, so cannot comment. But on the topic of whether we have actually restored any organ of the twentieth-century in the twentieth-century, in my own country, I have much to say.

In America, as in England, presenting an historic entity to a modern public often brings with it radical alteration of the entity in question. Independence Hall in Philadelphia is no longer a seat of government; it has become the embodiment of its historical icon, the cradle of liberty, for all to walk through and see. Walking through implies ramps for the handicapped, elevators for the weary, air-conditioning for our sweat and radiators for our chill, not to mention wiring, plumbing, lighting, telephones and security systems. The cradle of liberty is now cradled in laser-beam motion detectors. As a culture we are conditioned to having our history pre-digested, sized up in convenient individual portions, so that we are not so much visitors to a shrine but more consumers of history as a marketed tourist item. If we have ‘done it, bought the T-shirt (or tea-towel, as Jim Berrow has helpfully suggested)’, chances are that we have gone into a structure that even, with much sensitivity and thought, has been shamelessly altered to keep pace with modern expectations, even of an experience that is supposed to be ‘historic’.

Our old organs are increasingly becoming the equal of these types of ‘historic’ experiences. Not only is this bad in and of itself, but it tends to make genuine conservation-oriented restoration some kind of fluke exception to the more normal sort of intrusive rebuild, or even that kind of rebuilding which masquerades as restoration.

I came here not from Philadelphia, which is my home, but from Montréal, where the Organ Historical Society’s annual convention is still in progress. It is our Society’s first convention outside the United States, and is a fascinating but chilling preview of what I fear future conventions may be like. Simply put, Montreal has almost no organs in original condition. Although we regularly hear new organs at our OHS conventions, this is the first time new organs comprise the majority of those seen. Those not from the nineteenth century, or not modern organ reform movement instruments, have all, every one of them, been changed.

Most were Casavant organs to begin with, rebuilt either by Casavant themselves or one of the more recently prominent firms such as Guilbault-Therien or Létourneau. The most famous of these old Casavants, the 1915 organ at the Eglise de Trés Saint Nom de Jesus in the Maisonneuve section of Montréal, would have suggested itself a prime candidate for pristine restoration; instead it was completely rebuilt by Casavant. Even more interesting, Casavant’s philosophy is available for all to savour. I quote from a pamphlet issued by them, in conjunction with the church:

From a tonal standpoint the organ is representative of the large instruments produced by Casavant in those days. While it shows the influence of the nineteenth-century French-symphonic aesthetics favoured by the Casavant brothers, it also reflects the Anglo-American style then in fashion.

The organ … earned praise from many quarters. The famous organist Lynnwood Farnam, who played it a few months after it was installed, emphasized that ‘balance and finish were everywhere apparent.’ In 1924, the renowned English organbuilder Henry Willis III visited the Casavant brothers while on a trip to the United States and Canada. He wrote, ‘The organ which gave me the most pleasure, and which I consider the Casavant chef d’oeuvre, is that in the Church of the Sacred Name of Jesus, Maisonneuve, Montreal.’

A restoration committee was formed in the early 1980s. Four renowned organists drew up specifications, while organologist Massimo Rossi made an exhaustive review of the pipework. While everyone involved agreed on the historical and tonal value of the instrument, it was felt that the work should be done in keeping with the French symphonic tradition, since the organ had obvious roots in that style.

You can guess the rest, which goes on to say that the console was entirely rebuilt, the Great chorus entirely recast, and the Great reeds revoiced with new shallots. A hiatus occurred due to lack of funding, but a decade later it was possible to resume work. ‘The key elements of the original restoration plan were respected, although it was simplified somewhat, in particular through greater re-use of the pipework.’ Two choice quotes end my citation, this first from Christopher Jackson of Concordia College:

It is not surprising that I enthusiastically agreed to act as a consultant for the proposed restoration in 1984, later to be joined by several of my colleague organists. After extensive debate and discussion we agreed that the organ should not only be restored but brought to a closer approximation of the French symphonic instruments it was intended to emulate.

And from Casavant’s associate tonal director Jacqueline Rochette:

In keeping with our tradition, we took particular care with the voicing, tone regulation and balance between the different tonal syntheses. The ‘balance and finish’ praised in 1915 by Farnam can still be heard in this wonderful instrument, part of Quebec’s musical heritage.

On a recent internet discussion forum devoted to organ matters, John Panning, the tonal director of Dobson Pipe Organ Builders, summed up my reaction more politely than I would have. I quote:

Apparently, the instrument is a great success. Why, then, is there this bowing and scraping to the idea that the organ has been ‘restored’, when it's clearly been rebuilt and revoiced? Is there something dishonourable about this, especially if the result is excellent? Will the organ be more highly regarded because of this fiction that it's been ‘restored’?

If we are not clear in our definition of ‘restore’, it will soon mean nothing.

I don’t wish to point at Casavant as an example of what every builder in America has done at some time or another. What I find so glaring is the double-speak. For one thing, the early Casavant aesthetic, with its closed-shallot chorus reeds, roller-bearded strings, leathered diapasons and prolific wooden flutes, relates to 19th-century French traditions in nomenclature only: it was never, as Mr. Jackson would have us believe, intended to emulate anything but a personal style of Claver Casavant, one of the original brothers. More to the point, it demonstrates how in North America the word restoration is applied indiscriminately across a wide range of treatments, very few of which have anything to do with true restorative preservation work.

This troubling development almost seems a retrogression from the heady ideals in force at the beginning of the conservation movement. In the 1970s when a real restoration ethic started to emerge simultaneously in both tracker and electric-action realms, restoration meant just that: making the organ go again by cleaning it up and changing only those perishable materials the builder expected would be renewed over the long-term life of the instrument.

These days the word restoration is more often invoked as a marketing ploy rather than as an indication of serious intent to preserve the past. Perhaps this is to be expected of America. History is a very great and sentimental thing to many Americans, much in the manner of the Bible. Like the Bible, however, history is something few Americans have read or actually understand, much less wish to grasp. They like the notion of history, as we all do. It is comforting to have come from something and from somewhere, but otherwise the awe of the ancient makes us glaze over, pining instead for storybook myth over real historical wonder and example.

As soon as organs began to be restored there was both celebration and opposition. People who were tired of seeing organs either spoilt or discarded rejoiced at new-found sensitivity and respect for organ heritage. Those who had been all too happy to change, enlarge and ‘update’ their instruments looked upon the restorers as trouble-makers who had come to spoil the party. Moreover, these same people grew increasingly uncomfortable with any unwelcome attention upon the machinations of their hoped-for rebuilds.

Why are organists and builders so afraid to keep old organs old? In some cases, they have been the ones to change an organ, and they have no desire to go back to a sound and musical effect they consider inferior. One famous instance involved a 1930s Aeolian-Skinner, designed and finished by G. Donald Harrison. The organ was mostly on pressures of between three and four inches and was undoubtedly mild; texture, clarity of tone and seamless blend were the objectives here, not raw decibels: an anti-heroic, rather than anti-romantic organ. Over a period of many years, the organist had systematically loudened the organ, first by having the shallots of the chorus reeds filled with wax and let out to the limit, then by having the toes cut full open on the two Great mixtures, scraping nicks and widening windways on the remainder of the chorus to balance. The result was a hideous, shrieking mess without blend, balance or clarity. The final touch came in the addition of not one but two half-length 32' reeds, shoved into the organ at either end like overgrown news kiosks.

Not surprisingly, the church suspected that something was wrong. Not only did the organ sound somewhat tortured, it was a disorganized mess inside. This state of affairs was confirmed by the fact that every independent evaluator recommended putting the organ back exactly as it had been, and commented in no uncertain terms upon the quality of the rebuilding work. The organist, who hired a consultant perhaps with the goal of protection from the ‘historical mob’, did not realize how committed to restoration his consultant actually was. The poor organist was now not only upset at the prospect of losing his new-found tonal excitement; he was humiliated to lose the support of his church. Rather than suffer the fate of his own decision-making, he resigned. The restoration work continued under the guidance of the same consultant and a new, supportive organist; all pipework was restored, including chipping the wax out of the slender Bertouneche-style shallots, at great expense but with convincing results.

This is one of the few instances where the organist left. It was an uncomfortable and unhappy situation for all parties – except, of course, for the organ. Since egos mend faster than organs, it was perhaps for the best. In most other instances the organist will be annoyed by restoration because he had hoped to use the rehabilitation process as a means of getting the organ reconfigured according to his own liking. After all, he plays it Sunday by Sunday, who better should know its flaws? And why should flaws not be corrected? If the argument is set up on these false premises, no reasonable hand will win. The fact of the matter is that if we don’t leave organs alone, we will never understand a thing about them, let alone be open to the lessons that they alone can teach.

In a nineteenth-century instrument of earlier vintage, the desire to reconfigure is sometimes more about logistics than personal tonal whim. The major obstacles always seem to be compass, pitch and action: no pedalboard, a contra-G–compass Great and a tenor c-compass Swell, and a heavy-handed nineteenth-century balanced action are conventionally seen to limit the range of repertoire an instrument will accommodate. In a twentieth-century instrument, the impatience is greater, the reasoning thinner, the means of change much easier, and to my mind the consequences just as grave. Another example: again, an organ by Aeolian-Skinner, this time from the early 1950s in a prosperous church. The organ was formerly distinguished not only by its completeness but also by the presence of Great reeds, something of a rarity in a Harrison instrument of about 50 stops.

A consortium of firms recently rebuilt the organ. On the plus side, it was discovered that the floor supporting the organ was giving way; this was rectified. On the other hand, a new console was introduced, several stops switched around, certain existing stops made playable at more than one pitch, the former barbaric Pedal reed choked down and made into a Great double reed, several new ranks of pipes added, and numbers of new electronic stops to go with them, including a monstrous 32' plus 16' pedal reed ‘effect’.

However, since this is the era of historical awareness, the church authorities knew they would have to answer to someone. To demonstrate historical sensitivity, they placed the original console in a gallery some 140 feet away from the chancel and main organ, and wired it to the original specification. The awfully nice organist related that he had accomplished much of the funding for the project by using the R word, which was impossible to deduce until he said ‘Restoration.’ Is adding electronic voices, at least easier to reverse in the future, less invasive than changes and additions to the pipes?

Whatever the answer, these kinds of events cause one to review positive attitude about recent trends. For example, as recently as three years ago, I was able to write rather smugly in the Journal of the then-new IBO:

The Organ Historical Society happily celebrates its fortieth anniversary this year. Since its inception in 1956, the OHS has fought vigorously and effectively for the cause of the historic American organ. Their efforts have paid off: more and more organs, large and small, are restored according to their Guidelines for Conservation and Restoration. This simple page, authored more than twenty years ago by restorer and tracker organ builder George Bozeman and modified only slightly since then, sets forth a simple code of good restoration conduct: if something has worked reliably, then refurbish it according to the original manufacture and techniques used to build it; if it has proven unreliable, or secondary conditions prevent reliable operation, then – and only then – alter it with the greatest sensitivity and make your work easy to undo at a later time.

While there is no untruth in the above statement, it must be conceded that we have still a very great distance to come in the recognition and genuine conservation of our heritage. There is no question that things have improved. Historical awareness has developed, research has been considerable, and appreciation and understanding has grown tremendously. People used to guard their opinions for fear of reprisal when their organs were out of fashion. Now, tolerance is at a much greater level, and almost every kind of instrument enjoys some degree of appreciation. People confess to liking Schlickers, others have stopped holding monthly village swell-box burnings.

However, a considerable gap continues to exist between acknowledging historical significance and a consistent, honest and serious restoration ethic. In organs that have been even slightly changed, people seem too eager to jump on the change-and-addition bandwagon, since the door has been opened. In organs that were once very significant but are now considerably altered, most people have less interest in recapturing what was once potentially magnificent, preferring instead to take an easier, less challenging route toward what is invariably a more modern stop list and musical result. Thus the outcome is neither new nor old, and it requires a builder of considerable genius to produce distinguished results.

Players and builders alike share a role in the outcome, and the results, like the culture, touch all extremes. Don’t misunderstand, numerous instruments have been the objects of thoughtful preservation, but as I surveyed the examples for this talk, it dawned on me anew that such examples remain the exception to normal practice. Real restoration – that is, keeping organs entirely original with no changes whatsoever – continues to be seen as an extremist and impractical treatment set against modern expectations of what any organ should be called upon to perform. Old tracker organs continue to be rebuilt with new actions (to better approximate the action in new organs) and routinely receive tonal alterations (to better approximate modern desires in performing a broader range of music). While such changes occur less frequently than was the case in the 1960s and ’70s, one wonders why it is still going on at all: wasn’t this supposed to be the domain of new organs? Has the preservation movement in fact failed? It is easy to be cynical in concluding that most organists really aren’t interested in the past, and most organbuilders are all too happy for the work. Few other conclusions present themselves, however.

Twentieth-century electric-action organs see the greatest casualties. Almost without exception their electrical systems are replaced, and consoles are either rebuilt or replaced outright. This disregards the all-important original builder’s tactile and environmental intentions: after all, did not the twentieth-century lavish incredible attention on console feel, look, touch? Worst of all, such organs never seem to escape some kind of tonal alteration or augmentation. It used to be bad enough that every second electric-action organ could not be re-leathered without growing a trompette-en-chamade in the process. These stops were installed everywhere: east walls, west walls, transept walls, tower walls, high above pointing at nothing and, most frighteningly, in vertical arrangements sticking out like machine artillery from chancel columns. The 1990s has another solution for us, in that instruments can be ‘completed’ without regard for spatial consideration by the introduction of electronic (pardon me! digital) voices. (This splitting of hairs is something akin to calling leatherette naughahyde, but apparently it means a great deal to those who know the difference.)

Not that there are many more unaltered organs to compromise. Consider the 750 organs that Ernest Skinner’s company built from 1901 to 1931; about eleven per cent of those instruments, just about 80, survive without alteration of any kind, save standard re-leathering or renewal work. By alteration of any kind, I am applying what some might consider a strict standard but which constitutes the only definition that can apply: those that survive with no tonal or interior mechanical alterations whatever, and with their original consoles and electrical systems intact. If one were to be more lax, and accept the number of organs that have been added to, or electrically changed, but at whose core one can still experience the original musical results, the figure would grow to perhaps 25 per cent. By any count this is alarming, but few seem to care much.

Aeolian-Skinner organs have fared only slightly better, and certainly most of the landmark organs have been already altered a good deal. Famous instruments such as Boston’s Church of the Advent are celebrated as a testament to the legend of G. Donald Harrison, yet only 8 of its 57 stops speak either on their original wind pressure or in their original voice. The Groton School organ of 1935, a seminal instrument in the history of American organ reform and the first instance of an unenclosed-Positiv division in any Aeolian-Skinner, has not one single stop speaking in its original voice or wind pressure. Naturally these instruments are still destinations of pilgrimage, and while they continue to have musical merits, they are hardly historic documents any longer.

Even modern organs do not escape the revisionist’s hand. The C.B. Fisk company has in fact revised a number of Charlie Fisk’s early organs. Take the 1963 instrument for Kings Chapel and the 1967 organ for Harvard University: poor-quality supply-house reeds replaced with new, actions re-engineered, mixtures re-composed, stop-action solenoids replaced (the last factor hard to protest). Murray Somerville, organist of the landmark Harvard Fisk, finds himself in a major quandary: the organ cannot be called a consummate accompanimental organ and lacks any truly romantic voices. Can and should he change it? Are we prepared to preserve the bad with the good? Are we really capable of judging any organ built only 32 years ago? History suggest us that we are probably not. (Perhaps Professor Somerville has decided to grit his teeth and program a lot of unaccompanied music: I haven’t checked his service leaflets lately.)

Of course, it would be handy to blame all the organists for the destruction of these instruments, but the first prize often belongs to the original builders themselves. G. Donald Harrison set a precedent by repeatedly revising some of the earliest and most important Aeolian-Skinners: he revised the Groton School organ in many details before his death, his successors doing still more and probably feeling that they were simply carrying on the tradition of experimentation and refinement. Harrison altered several other of his landmark organs during his lifetime, among them St Mary the Virgin in New York City, All Saints’ in Worcester, and Grace Cathedral in San Francisco, not to mention countless examples of Ernest Skinner’s work. And although we rarely consider Skinner in the rebuilder’s light, he did it too, although the fact that he was replacing tracker organs with electric often meant that he was called to rebuild organs far less frequently. In dealing with his own work, Skinner usually added new features and rarely revamped an organ’s basic philosophy.

In each case, Skinner and Harrison were trying to superimpose a later aesthetic on more youthful efforts, but in so doing they paved the way, and not without at least rhetorical justification, for modern builders to say, ‘Well, since these builders recognized the flaws in their own work and changed them accordingly, why can’t we?’ It takes an unusually level head to deal with this very thorny issue.

Theoretically, the restoration of an electro-pneumatic organ should be no different from any other. The very nature of such instruments, however, invites a perspective that sees a chain of separate elements rather than an integrated whole. Even a bad tracker organ is an unmistakable 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 as integrated in its construction as in its design. It is easier to apply a restoration ethic to such an instrument, because changing one part of it, as in any tracker organ, will inevitably affect the whole. Even if you don’t care about restoration, you may be less likely to introduce that kind of domino-effect trouble into your work.

Now consider a 1930 Skinner organ. It may be housed in one location, with the console in another; the divisions may be together or located separately. Even if they are together, each division can be regarded as a self-contained unit, with individual wind supplies, tremulants, etc., Unlike even a tubular pneumatic organ, or so many English organs with mechanically-operated shutter mechanisms over great distances, there exist no hard-and-fast mechanical ties between any section of the instrument. The separation of elements, the isolated identity of the console, the stand-apart nature of the electrical system, and the freedom to alter individual pressures and pipe placement without regard for impact on key action, certainly paves an easier road for changes both trifling and drastic.

Add to this a certain derisive modern perspective which regards this style of organbuilding as the result of a haphazard design philosophy, and the temptation to alter such an instrument grows larger still. Will not the righteous rebuilder know in his heart that there is no harm in compromising an already inherently flawed work? And, as if all of this weren’t already a potent recipe for change, consider one final dynamic: in its every phase the twentieth-century organ has received absolutely rotten press right on the eve of decline in each of its phases. Call this phenomenon the ‘Enormous condescension of posterity’ at a speeded-up, twentieth-century pace.

In the years after world war I, most nineteenth-century organs were dismissed because they were difficult to play, had too many mixtures, overly-bright and unrefined reeds, and few console aids to permit the convincing performance of transcribed music. In the ’30s, most organs of the ’20s were dismissed because they lacked clarity, they had no mixtures and the reeds were too dark. In the years following world war II, most pre-war organs were dismissed because they contained chorus reeds in unthinkable places (the Great organ, for example) and the mixtures, though present, were too tame, and there was still too much fundamental, so how was Bach to be played? Around the mid-60s, most of the post-war organs were dismissed because they didn’t play Bach authentically (whatever in God’s name that meant, means or will mean).

Now in the 1990s, most post 1960s organs are dismissed as exercises in false scholarship at worst, or indicative of a purely and unapologetic modernist bent at best (I think of Beckerath here, almost all of whose American organs survive without any alteration because of their inherent quality). Not only are the neo-classical organs rather unlike their supposed inspiration, but authenticity itself may now be unravelling as any kind of decisive parameter. Rather the better builders confess that they are building new organs in an old style, hoping to create their own art, even if the stylistic debt is enormous. In time we will tire of this also, and a more straightforward kind of ego will return to high-echelon organbuilding.

From a preservation standpoint, this revolving cycle of our regard for new organs has a potentially disastrous correlative effect on our regard for old ones, particularly those from the immediate past. I don’t think we are completely unable to trust our own judgement where old organs of the recent past are concerned but, if history is any guide no organ culture gets a high score in this area. The only barometer to worthiness of preservation must rest with the instrument itself, and unless we are prepared to deny an instrument reaching its future admirers, we must give it every benefit of the doubt.

If we look in again at our hypothetical unaltered 1930 Skinner, it has now been out of fashion for three different generations at three increasing levels of bad taste. The latest phase, that of the late 1980s and 1990s, adds its own twist by viewing the Skinner as a significant and unaltered relic, something like an heirloom and just as perplexing. The instrument isn’t really out of the fire just yet. In this last round of scorn its apparent lack of literature will condemn it to the curiosity category – under the strange and utterly modern premise that organbuilding becomes great only when it inspires great literature (as if the instrument itself is supposed to be in the delivery room with the baby Franck and Widor, counterpoint text at the ready). So the comments one hears about the unaltered Skinner will run something like – ‘This Swell five-rank mixture is terrific, but how do you use the Dolce Cornet?’ Or another favourite, and admittedly with good reason, ‘Why is there a Nazard but no 2' Piccolo in my Choir organ?’

Uncannily, with all these changes in taste, our hypothetically unaltered 1930 Skinner has undergone no changes, only ageing. It is our perspective that is the wild variable, the moving target, and the thing to fear most because it makes the organ the victim of whim. 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 it turns out that we have been changing things for the wrong reasons, that if we wanted something different that we would have been so much better off to have started afresh? It would have been far kinder to history and church finances alike to secure organists who actually like a given instrument rather than to fund the desires of an organist who doesn’t, and for a congregation that in all likelihood neither knows the difference nor much cares.

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 proposals. At least in America, organists and organbuilders are equally guilty of doing the wrong thing more often than the right; but it is the organist who gets the ball rolling by uninformed and insensitive demands of history, and the organbuilder who, out of desperation or an equal degree of misunderstanding, too often goes right along with the script, lest he empty his order book and bank account.

Well, there is some good news.

The 1970s saw an equal resurgence in the sensitive restoration of both tracker and electric-action organs. In that decade, the Andover Organ Company, the primary rebuilder of so many old tracker organs, undertook a proper restoration of the 1850s Hook organ in Old South Church, Newburyport, Massachusetts. The most notable change was the fitting of tuning slides to the flue pipes. Around the same time Andover also restored a Hutchings-Plaisted that had been Eugene Thayer’s practice organ, again of great historical significance and deemed worthy of true restoration, given Thayer’s tremendous influence on organ music and pedagogy and of his German training.

The tracker builder George Bozeman also had an early hand in true restoration work during the 1970s by restoring the G-compass 1840s Stevens organ in Belfast, Maine. Action, wind system and specification remained unchanged. Tuning was an issue; though the pipes remained cone-tuned, the unequal temperament was not reinstated. Bozeman continued this approach in Bangor, Maine with a three-manual 1860 Hook. Missing pipes were re-created following the originals, and the action repaired as necessary using parts in the style of the original. Compass, not pitch, reared its head here: the 25-note pedal compass was extended to 27, and the slide for a prepared-for Pedal ’Cello was used to install a replica Hook Trombone with wooden resonators. If not precisely restoration, these jobs signalled at last a degree of sensitivity in the reconsideration of an old tracker organ uncommon up to that point in all but the most routine cleaning and overhaul jobs where funds limited ambition.

This period came to a benchmark moment with Fritz Noack’s restoration of the Mechanics’ Hall, Worcester, Hook organ of 1864, essentially America’s first town-hall-type concert organ. It was the re-trackerization for which all the others had been test cases, and the evidence was easy to establish. The Mechanics’ Hall organ had been rebuilt, electrified and enlarged only once, by Hutchings. Essentially all the original material remained, and Mr. Noack was charged with re-trackerizing the instrument, building a new Barker machine and replicating the console, the last aspect being done particularly well. The job was not without complications, stemming mostly from difficulties making the Barker machine do its job. The rest of the work was carried out to a high standard of European restoration: all new or replica work was done in a modern style distinctly apart from the old, so as to leave no question where old left off and new began.

By and large the organ has been a great success, with a big public following. What is equally clear is that the spirit of this restoration was the clear answer for its time. The love for old tracker organs may have begun twenty years prior, but it took two decades for respect to catch up with regard.

Respect and regard started up more concurrently with the first major Skinner restorations in the mid-1970s, since the organs themselves had been strongly derided up to that point. It should be remembered that this was a horrible time for most electric-action organs: Perflex, the thought-to-be marvellous plastic substitute for leather, was turning out to be a first-class disaster. In large urban organs, Perflex was replacing thin, brown vegetable-tanned leather that had in no way held up to big-city pollution. Upon Perflex’s failure, purses were once again being replaced with leather that might last only ten to twelve years. Faced with such an expensive futures, many churches were replacing their organs outright, or switching out pitman soundboards for traditional slider soundboards, or fitting all-electric valves inside hollowed-out soundboard shells — all fates both costly and inconsistent with any preservation stance. Luckily the Perflex chapter was a short, if painful one, to be fully vilified by research into chrome-tanned leathers, the chemical proof of their longevity, and their widespread availability. Without the availability of durable rubber cloth and leather, the prudence of much electro-pneumatic organ restoration would have come into strong question long ago.

The first noteworthy and publicised Skinner restoration was the entirely vintage Skinner organ of 1926 in Jefferson Avenue Presbyterian Church, Detroit, Michigan carried out by Ken and Dorothy Holden in 1976. Mrs. Holden is the author of a biography about Skinner published by the OHS in 1984. Nothing about the organ was changed, due to a reverence for this particular instrument, the innate conservatism of the restorers, and the fact that the organ was in excellent restorable condition.

A year later the A. Thompson-Allen Company of Yale finished their first Skinner restoration, the 1928 three-manual in First Presbyterian Church, Wilmington, North Carolina. Again, no changes. In the following year Nelson Barden of Boston completed a restoration of a 1936 Kimball at the First Church of Christ (Scientist) in Cambridge, Massachusetts, an even-less popular sort of instrument (in this period, a Skinner would be saved but all other electric-action organs were to be considered highly suspicious). Although a consultant forced a mixture to be added to the Great, the organ otherwise remains tonally and mechanically intact. This job won for Barden a large body of mechanical restoration work at the Church of the Advent in Boston and a burgeoning reputation.

As the 1980s and ’90s progressed, the work of Barden, Thompson-Allen and Edward Stout in San Francisco dominated the top-echelon scene of rehabilitating better-quality early twentieth-century electro-pneumatic organs. In the 1990s more builders absorbed and perfected techniques for making success of this sort of work. In 1996, Barden, Stout and Thompson-Allen co-hosted a seminar for the topic, sponsored by the American Institute of Organbuilders (AIO); with 38 in attendance, it was the best-attended seminar in AIO history.

Reverence for Skinner, however, was slow in coming, and many more organs were subject to rebuilds of the traditional variety. Even in the early 1990s, when Skinner reverence had reached a certain high pitch, some of his earliest work was being rebuilt under the notion that it was not equal to his later efforts (again, according to this bizarre premise, since it doesn’t represent the best, it cannot be worthy of restoration, since there is no bad history?) I quote from a pamphlet issued by Saint Andrew’s Episcopal Church in Pittsburgh, which had a four-manual Ernest M. Skinner organ of 1913 — before its alteration, the oldest completely unaltered four-manual Skinner organ. (Of note is that Edwin Lemare’s wife Charlotte was organist here for a time.) Unlike the Casavant fiction, there is no doublespeak here: the writer is at once more honest and more clever.

Pipe organs in Europe have been rebuilt more frequently than discarded. Many famous European organs contain pipes or parts from previous organs in the same church. Thankfully, this attitude of conservation is now being practised in this country by all of the finest builders. In additional, the approach of historic restoration is beginning to appear for historical rather than economic reasons. (The cost of historic restoration can often exceed the price of a new instrument!)

St Andrew’s organ was a candidate for either rebuilding or historic restoration. There is much to be commended to the historic restoration movement. However, the preservation of the idiosyncrasies of the developing mechanism and electrical systems at the turn of the century can limit the practicality and usefulness of the instrument. One might draw an analogy to owning an antique car – a worthy and viable transportation source for a Sunday drive, but problematic as transportation to work in bad weather.

The Vestry at St Andrew’s chose to rebuild (as opposed to restore) the Skinner organ, preserving as much as was feasible of the mechanics of the organ. Contracts were signed in 1990 for the replacement of the console and rebuilding of the entire organ. All of the electrical components of the organ are new, including solid-state relays and new wiring. All leather has been replaced on the reservoirs (bellows) and in the windchests. Additionally, the windchests have been fitted with new magnets and primary valve cases.

A chronology of the work of E.M. Skinner reveals the evolution of the tonal design he pursued. In his early years (of which the St Andrew’s organ is representative), Skinner’s knowledge of tonal design was based on other American organs. In the early twenties, Skinner travelled to England and met the famous English organ builder Henry Willis, who built the organ at St Paul’s Cathedral in London and Liverpool Cathedral among others. Skinner was much impressed with the English tonal ensemble, which was much brighter and clearer than he was accustomed to. All of his subsequent organs began to bear a closer resemblance to the English Cathedral sound. Skinner’s magnum opus is to be found at Washington National Cathedral, although this instrument has been substantially altered since.

The tonal design of St Andrew’s organ now much more closely resembles the sound of the English cathedral organs. Additional stops were carefully scaled and voiced to meet this aesthetic.

It is commendable that the writer does not try to fool his audience into thinking that restoration, rebuilding and drastic change all fall together under one happy roof, even though he gets some of his facts wrong. But the larger truth here is that we continue to struggle to justify our actions when often the only reason we change anything is simply because we want to. Shouldn’t we just admit it from the outset and save everyone’s time? In Pittsburgh, the desire to restore is clearly absent, nor is it articulated. Blithely implied is the desire for more pistons, more mixtures and more modern tonal resources.

The true and shining example of twentieth-century organ conservation is all the more shocking because it exists in one of America’s largest and most regularly used organs: the Newberry Memorial Organ in Woolsey Hall, Yale University, New Haven. This is a one-of-a-kind instrument built in 1903 by Hutchings-Votey, rebuilt with an entirely new chassis in 1915 by the Steere Organ Company, and then almost doubled in size with a new console in 1928–9 by the Skinner Organ Company. It poses many interesting restoration issues.

First of all, there has never been any notion that the organ should be returned to either its Steere or Hutchings state; the organ’s fame rests on its Skinner incarnation, in which it is roundly hailed as perhaps one of the two or three finest ultra-romantic organs ever built. In this context one would no more suggest a restorative recreation than propose that Saint-Sulpice be returned to its Clicquot disposition. Although tonal revisions were once considered for Woolsey Hall in the 1950s, lack of funds prevented anything other than routine cleaning; and even re-leathering work was put off for funding reasons until the 1970s.

Under the careful guidance of the Thompson-Allen Company and a supportive and sympathetic university faculty, this organ has become a living shrine to the fact that an organ can serve 60 hours a week in term time, 14 students and an active concert schedule, all while being in almost every respect precisely as the Skinner Company left it in 1929. Changes have been extraordinarily few, so few that they are worth recording. Long ago Aubrey Thompson-Allen rewired the Pedal second Diapason to borrow from a metal, not a wood rank; the original Choir ”’Cello was replaced with a Hook & Hastings set for tuning stability; one stop that was traded out in 1931 has been re-instated (the unique Solo Orchestral Trombone stop on 25 inches wind pressure), retaining its replacement, the Trumpet Harmonique. That’s it. The electrical system, combination action, console, wiring, chests, wind system, and every pneumatic action: all operate as originally designed and built. Perishable materials have been renewed; the twin blowers have been rewound and re-balanced. This is not a museum piece. Rather, it is a living instrument and a great testament to the reality of most good organbuilding: it is built to be rebuilt.

Of the Barden-Stout-Thompson Allen trio, the Thompson-Allen Company is the most sensitive to the aesthetic of keeping electric action organs entirely original. They have never electrified a console, they have never solid-stated any organ, and they have restored all kinds of electric-action organs with success, including bothersome ones. As of this writing, they have restored ten Skinner and Aeolian-Skinner organs in 20 years, as well as others; their current project is a 1930 Kimball organ in Western Pennsylvania. Here is a clear ethic of restoration.

But, is it also an ethic of conservation? Strictly speaking, the answer must be no; nor, it must be pointed out, has it ever intended to be. When a client is a church or a university — not a museum — daily use and an expectation of reliability must of necessity inform the nature of restoration. Therefore, it is only natural that, even with this most preservation-minded of firms, some of what they do goes against the strict grain of conservation. For example, new tuning slides are fitted to slide-tuned pipes; certain cone-tuned pipes are trimmed and sleeved also. (Certainly, and sadly, there are many more rough-handed tuners than pristine cone-tuned pipes in American organs: to sleeve a cone-tuned pipe is often its best means of preservation.)

Also, the Yale restorers re-finish pipes and wooden surfaces, duplicating original techniques and applications. Some surfaces that received minimal finish (such as walkboards and perchboards) are re-finished and sealed in varnish. In the interest of tuning stability and tonal regularity, reed stops have occasionally been fitted with new tongues of a different thickness schedule and with a different style and schedule of weighting. The Thompson-Allen people do this only where reeds have proven themselves highly unstable or in other ways unreliable; moreover, original tongues are always preserved on-site.

The conservator might choose to view this work — by far the most conservative of any American electric-action organ restoration shop — as a well-intentioned confusion between the aims of restoration and the modern expectation that an old organ behave like a new one. That would be an unfair judgment, since it is a conscious and painfully-arrived-at code devised by people who know that one of the modern burdens of historic objects is that they look after their own future welfare. And it must be remembered that this firm does not advertise itself as a conservation lab, but a restoration shop, with no decision idly arrived at. In the words of Joseph Dzeda:

“The organ restorer, as with any other restoration artisan, must confront a basic issue, namely knowing when to stop. On the one hand it would be possible to do the scrimpy minimum to return the instrument to duty, eschewing all but the most unavoidable tasks in the name of (misplaced) historicity, (false) economy, or simply good old-fashioned laziness. Organs restored to these standards tend to look not fully refreshed, like someone who shows up for work bleary-eyed and having slept in yesterday’s clothes. At the other extreme one could strip and refinish every square inch of woodwork, replace every scrap of felt, and generally indulge in every imaginable exercise of gratuitous restoration in an attempt to make the result look like it was made yesterday. Taking our cue from the techniques used to conserve antiques, we advocate a more moderate approach, seeking to preserve the undeniable patina of the past, while generally freshening up the organ’s chassis and pipework to give the impression not of a new instrument, but rather of one which has been respectfully cared for over the years.”

Having achieved such incredible levels at high-end restoration, one new direction for certain organs may be to apply conservation-informed techniques in place of now-traditional restoration techniques, toward a result that leaves more of the original finish, appearance and ambience intact — again, as the instrument's condition, and its environment and owner, will allow. In America some recent tracker restorations point the way in this regard. In a twentieth-century organ a particularly striking example of this newer type of approach is Columbia Organ Works’ restoration in 1991 of the 1931 Steinmeyer organ imported from Germany to Altoona, Pennsylvania and installed there in the Roman Catholic Cathedral of the Blessed Sacrament. If you don’t know of this organ, you ought to: it pretends to be a neo-classical organ of its time but really ends up being a big late ultra-romantic German organ of considerable impact, curiosity and interest. It is set in a gloriously rolling acoustic, and can be heard on a superb Raven recording by Peter Sykes called Maximum Reger.

Columbia’s work on this organ was plagued with challenge, mostly related to the curious individual square-pneumatic note action with ventil stop action. Many experiments were required to get things right; certain mechanisms had to be done over twice, thickness and porosity of leather and paper regularly re-evaluated. And, because of an uninformed consultant (who died midway through the project), one unfortunate change was inflicted upon the process: the fitting of solenoid units to the otherwise action-less register tablets on the console in order to provide a modern solid-state combination action. However, through rods and squares, these solenoids have been fitted in such a way as to be entirely removable, as have the additional key-slips. All new porcelain indicators to accommodate this system were supplied by Laukhuff, who are though to have built the original console, and the new match the old (Laukhuff has never stopped making them in this particular style), so it is hard to know what is new and what is old. The original free-combination system remains untouched and in perfect working order.

Playing this organ, and inspecting its interior, the work of the restorer is transparent. The organ has been wiped clean, otherwise it looks its age. Surfaces that look nice have perhaps been buffed a little harder to invigorate and refresh the original polish: an interpretative touch that insures the donors that their money has gained them something. The same basic idea applies to the sound of the organ; egregious speech, timbral and power issues have obviously been corrected, but no attempt has been made to make this into any other than how it has been handed down.

So, the news has grown both better and worse. The shameless rebuild has mellowed into the sympathetic updating, which is just the same thing in a fancy new guise. Come 2025 we may have only a handful of original electro-pneumatic consoles left. And philosophies are changing, on the one hand toward less intrusive restoration practices and, on the other hand, less idealistic and possibly more realistic notions of how we should be approaching old organs whose fate is far from obvious. I close with one fascinating situation, as a stimulus to discussion.

The E. and G.G. Hook organ built in 1863 for Boston’s Church of the Immaculate Conception is now considered to be probably the finest nineteenth-century American organ, easily standing on a par with any other organ of the world in its day. It was installed under intense artistic pressure, in light of the completion of the famous Boston Music Hall organ by Walcker, whose construction began in 1857 and was completed in the year of the Immaculate Conception organ.

Evidence is sketchy, but initial research seems to indicate that the Immaculate Conception was no overnight success. In the very first year a systematic loudening began. By the 1880s, the Great reeds had been moved to the Swell, and a new set of parallel shallot reeds had been installed in the Great. The organ was prepared for several stops in 1863, some of which were installed in subsequent decades. The remainder, including a VII Cymbale on the Great, along with electrification, several very stylistically-consistent additions, a highly elegant terrace-jamb console, a new Solo organ, and re-pitching, occurred in a major rebuild of 1902 by Hook & Hastings, Hook’s successor firm, not even 40 years after the organ’s completion.

Nothing else occurred until the 1970s, when the Lahaise brothers of Boston Perflexed the pneumatic pull-down actions and fitted a new setterboard combination action to the console. In this state the organ remains, and poses numerous questions.

1. To what point in history should this instrument be restored?
2. Is it possible to pinpoint any state of the organ prior to 1902 with any accuracy?
3. In adding to and completing the organ in 1902, did the rebuilders fulfil a long-time wish of the original builders that no restoration should erase?
4. If Mechanics’ Hall was re-trackerized and its size reduced back to its 1864 specification, why would we not unhesitatingly do so here?
5. If the organ has been in its present state for 97 years, and existed in something like its original for only 39, which historical continuum takes precedent in restoration philosophy?
6. And finally: in an organ like this, what is restoration?

Restoration is a discipline that will always pose more questions than its answers. Only when we highlight the issues and study the past will we find, if not concrete answers, at least clues to how we can be as sensitive as possible in the consideration of old instruments. Although in theory it should be the simplest thing possible to leave something alone, it does not seem a very easy thing for most of us to accept. We would do well to ponder why.