The St. Mary Pipe Organ
The Skinner Organ Company, Boston
Opus 686, 1927-1928
How many pipes are in the organ? How large are they?
Originally, our E.M. Skinner organ had 1,444 pipes. With the retention of the added Dulciana pipes in the Pedal division, it currently has 1,476. (On the small end of medium-sized pipe organs.) The largest is about 20″ in diameter and 16′ tall. The smallest is 1/4″ diameter and under an inch tall. The gold-colored façade pipes were part of the original organ and no longer “speak”.
What kind of work is necessary to maintain the organ?
An electro-pneumatic pipe organ such as ours requires minor ongoing maintenance and semi-annual tuning adjustments. Major work to replace aging leather parts is necessary every 30 years or so. The instrument is currently maintained by the Holden Pipe Organ Co. of Ferndale, Michigan, and the Swem Pipe Organ Co. of Grand Rapids.
The Original Garrett House Organ
The existing church building was erected in 1874. In 1876, a generous donor helped the parish purchase a Garrett House mechanical-action pipe organ. The instrument was originally built for Notre Dame University’s Sacred Heart Chapel in July of 1864. When the university sought a larger instrument, St. Mary’s purchased this tracker organ from them. It had 29 stops, with 1,758 metal and wooden pipes.
It was renovated by W.W. Kimball & Co. of Chicago, who cleaned, repaired and revoiced the instrument. They replaced the original water system with a Kinetic blower operated by an electric motor to provide the wind pressure. This organ served the parish well for 47 years, and its case was kept to house the Skinner organ.
The E.M. Skinner Organ
The present three-manual organ of St. Mary’s Church was donated as a memorial for Philip Fritz by his family. It was built for St. Mary’s by the E.M. Skinner Organ company of Boston, Massachusetts, during the late 1920’s, and installed inside the Garrett House case. E.M. Skinner was widely admired in his day (and since) because of his advanced tonal ideas. The Skinner organs of this period demonstrate a transition in the sounds that Skinner preferred, leaning toward a new buoyancy and brilliance.
St. Mary’s organ, Opus 686, is an important historical instrument and a fine, well-built example of this period of Skinner’s work.
The 1970’s Renovation
During the 1970’s, the organ underwent a semi-restoration, as it had almost become unplayable. The C.V. Barden Co. of Kalamazoo fixed the worst of the failing leather problems and added seven new stops to the instrument: Great: Mixture III; Swell:Koppelflote 4 and Blockflote 2; Choir:Nazard 2-2/3, Spitzflute 2 and Tierce 1-3/5; Pedal: Dulciana 16. These additional stops were installed at the request of the organist at that time.
Even though the renovation was not entirely complete, the organ was in much better condition. Because no stops were removed from the organ, the original organ remained intact and playable. The fact that this instrument still plays and sounds as good as it does is a real tribute to its original builder.
The 1990’s Restoration
In late 1991, William J. Schneider of the Schneider Piano & Pipe Organ Service of Okemos, Michigan, was contracted to rebuild the ailing instrument. The pipes were cleaned and adjusted; the mechanism was rehabilitated and the console was refinished.
In this restoration, the plastic key tops substituted for the ivory in the 1970’s were replace by cow bone. The console was restored by R.A. Colby, Inc. of Johnson City, Tennessee. A new relay system by Solid State Logic, Inc. was installed. Schopp, Inc. of Alliance, Ohio was enlisted to create new scroll tuners for the Swell Oboe 16 and Trumpet 8.
Eleven pipes in the Great Bourdon 16 which had been replaced during the 1970’s renovation were again replaced, now with new pipes to authentic Skinner specifications from the American Organ Supply Co. of Milwaukee. All of the added ranks from the 1970’s renovation—except for the 16′ Dulciana in the Pedal—were evaluated, judged incongruous and removed. The tonal finishing was completed by Mr. Steuart Goodwin.
2009: Repairing the Rohrflute
In February of 2009, we had 49 pipes of the Rohrflute removed for maintenance. The pipes arrived back at St. Mary’s in May of that year, and now hold their tuning consistently again! For more information on this work, view this photo gallery.
The sources for the information on this organ come from a treasure of letters, articles, proposals, notes and contracts filed away in the St. Mary’s archives. No doubt, as we continue to scour the documentation, we will add to (and correct) the information presented here.
— Larry Barton
Contributors to our historical knowledge include:
- Aeolian-Skinner Archives; organhistoricalsociety.net/aeolianskinner
- American Guild of Organists, Grand Rapids Chapter; www.grago.org
- Ancona, Rev. Gaspar F., Where the Star Came to Rest, Éditions du Signe, Strasbourg, 2001.
- Ray Bustraan
- Nancy Crowley
- Bill Elliott
- Bush, Douglas Earl and Kassel, Richard, The Organ: An Encyclopedia, Routledge, 2006.
- Gefchichte der St. Marien-Gemeinde / Golden Jubilee Memories of St. Mary’s Church, 1907.
- Ken Holden, Holden Pipe Organ Co.
- Dick Hoogterp
- Dorothy Kant
- Organ Historical Society Pipe Organ Database; http://organsociety.org
- Gene Traas
- Jonathan Tuuk
- Pat Zimmer