Tuesday, July 12, 2011

Skinner’s early earnest days and the organ at Williams College, Williamstown, MA.

In 1911, the Skinner Organ Company of Boston, Massachusetts built nine organs.  As the company produced thirteen organs in 1909, this may seem a regression of production, but it’s interesting to note that of the nine organs built in 1911, five had four manuals, three had three manuals, and only one was a two-manual instrument of modest size.  These eleven instruments were installed in churches and schools in Seattle, Hartford, San Francisco, Washington DC, Lake George NY, Fall River and Williamstown MA.  When measured against the output of modern organbuilding companies, this is extraordinary output for a company roughly ten years old.

This was the period of some of Skinner’s most famous early organs such as those at the Cathedral of St. John the Divine and St. Thomas’ Church, both in New York, and the much admired instrument at Fourth Presbyterian Church in Chicago, IL.  Many of Skinner’s tonal innovations date from this period including Flute Celeste, Gamba Celeste, English Horn, Flugel Horn, French Trumpet, and 32’ Violone.  The Skinner Harp and Celesta was first introduced in the 1909 organ for Sage Chapel at Cornell University. 

Ernest and Mable Skinner were married in 1893.  Their third child, Ruth, was born in 1906, so this period of the advancing maturity and productivity of the Skinner Organ Company was concurrent with an active and dynamic family life, though daughter Ruth later noted that “Papa” was on the road most of the time.  Ernest purchased his first automobile in 1907 and instantly began a driving career sprinkled with admonitions for excessive speed, and at least one documented accident involving a tree in Cambridge, Massachusetts and a broken rib.  Ernest was among the first to own a speedboat on Lake Winnipesaukee in New Hampshire, and also among the first to win a speedboat race.  In 1917, Ernest Skinner’s love of adventure led to his first flight, 2500 feet above San Francisco Bay with his friend, pioneering pilot J. B. Struble of Oakland, CA.  (Biographical information offered from The Life and Work of Ernest M. Skinner, Dorothy Holden, The Organ Historical Society, 1987.)

The Skinner organ in Chapin Hall, Williams College, Williamstown, MA comprises nearly seventy ranks and was installed in a chamber above and behind the stage of the thousand-seat concert hall.  The replete and complete instrument sports massive stops including a full-length wood Double Open Diapason (22” square inside), an independent 32’ Bourdon (not extended from the 16’ Bourdon!), and a 16’ Tuba (83 notes) enclosed in the Solo with wood resonators for the bottom octave.  The stoplist includes French Horn, English Horn, a long list of characteristic string ranks, along with the expected Diapasons, Flutes, and Chorus Reeds.

The organ was severely damaged by a vandal in the mid-nineteen-sixties and never played again.

In the spring of 2011 the school was planning a renovation of Chapin Hall to include a new HVAC system that would be installed in the space currently occupied by the organ which would be demolished by the general contractor.  Members of the faculty of the Music Department raised the question of salvaging the organ.  Together we hatched a plan to dismantle the organ and ship it to Warrensburg, MO to the workshops of Quimby Pipe Organs who would store it until a new home with appropriate restoration could be located.

Quimby Pipe Organs and Williams College have provided funding for the reclamation of the instrument, damaged as it is.  Thanks and admiration to them for their magnanimity on behalf of America’s heritage of organbuilding.  On June 27, 2011, the staff of the Organ Clearing House began dismantling the organ, sharing the building with dozens of contractors and tradesmen as the building’s renovation was already well under way. 

Today, July 12, 2011, the OCH crew is loading the first of two tractor-trailers for shipment of the organ to Warrensburg.

The organ can be completely restored and is offered to any institution that can provide the resources for the restoration of this magnificent instrument.  It is a rare example of the early work of one of the greatest artists and innovators in the history of organbuilding, built in the wildly productive years at the end of the firm’s first decade.

We welcome your inquiries.
John Bishop

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