The E.M. Skinner Organ Opus 326, 1922

History of the Organ

In Margaret LaFar’s Historical Sketch of the First Baptist Church, Savannah, Georgia, we read the following:  “From its earliest days the Baptist church has had music as an increasingly vital part of its veneration of the heavenly Father.  Through music we have prayed, praised, and worshiped him.  It is doubtful that there was an organ in the Franklin Square Church, but the minutes tell that instrumental music was used . . . .  As far as we know an organ for the Baptist church is first mentioned when the church was occupying its new edifice on Chippewa Square.”  Nothing is known about that organ, but following a violent storm in 1898 which unroofed and severely damaged the interior of the church, a new organ was installed.

On February 24, 1899, First Baptist Church dedicated its fine new pipe organ with an evening recital by J. Lewis Browne, assisted by the Sappho Quartette of Georgia.  This twomanual organ of twentysix ranks boasted the use of pneumatic action throughout, and contained “. . . all modern improvements of assured value.”  It was built by John Brown, of Wilmington, Delaware, and was pronounced “noteworthy for unusual features of voicing and action.”

In 1920, extensive renovations to the church interior were undertaken, in keeping with changes in the form and style of worship.  A generous donation from Mrs. Carl Moultz, widow of George Armstrong, allowed the awarding of a contract for an instrument “which would be one of the . . . most beautiful organs in the entire Southeast.”  The organ was known as the Camp Memorial Organ, in honor of her parents.  Mrs. Moultz also paid to remodel the attic to accomodate the pipe chambers, and employed A. Leslie Jacobs to serve as organist for the first year.  He was followed by Christine Bacot, and subsequently by Dwight J. Bruce.

This instrument was built by the Skinner Organ Company of Boston, Massachusetts.  Ernest M. Skinner, president of the firm, was considered to be the most advanced organ designer in America, and organs by his firm were highly prized.  The threemanual organ of forty ranks contained the latest advances in both tonal and mechanical resources.  Skinner’s organs possessed refined, fullbodied tone of unusual clarity, unlike the sometimes muddied sounds produced by other builders of the time.  His console actions and “pitman” windchests were the most technologically advanced equipment available at that time.  This organ contains an example of the French Horn stop, invented by Ernest Skinner to duplicate the sound of its orchestral counterpart.

By 1954, regular use of the organ required the replacement of the console.  The work was done by M. P. Moller, Inc., of Hagerstown, Maryland.  The new console was equipped with four manual keyboards, so the Echo Organ was now playable from its own manual.  All the original Skinner pipework was still intact, and the new console was made large enough to accomodate anticipated future enlargements.  Dwight J. Bruce, organist and choirmaster since 1929, supervised the construction of the new console and presided at the organ until he retired in 1969.

Since the organ’s installation, tastes in organ music have changed drastically.  Where organists of the 1920’s were playing orchestral transcriptions or organ music of the “romantic” style, organists of the 1960’s were playing music by Bach and other composers of the “baroque” era.  New organs were of thinner tone, had more stops of higher pitch, and were generally louder.  In 1969, a modernization and enlargement program was begun by the regular organ servicemen, Dave Woodall and John Horton, under the supervision of Thomas H. Carswell, organist and choirmaster from 1969 to 1970.  At that time, some of the original Skinner pipes were replaced with new sets made by the Moller company.  Following the thencurrent trends, the new stops were cast in the neobaroque mold, and the remaining Skinner pipes were loudened by increasing the wind pressures.  As a result, the instrument lost much of its mellowness.

In the mid1980’s, the console was beginning to show signs of wear and the windchests again needed releathering.  At the recommendation of Associate Minister James C. Richardson, who had become the church’s organist and choirmaster in 1971, plans were considered for the complete renovation of the organ, and a contract was awarded in 1987 to Ontko & Young Co., Inc., of Charleston, South Carolina.

Fortunately, many of the original Skinner pipes had been stored in the attic, and Mr. Richardson and Mr. Ontko determined to restore as many as possible of them to use.  The Skinner windchests, which relied on fragile leather components now susceptible to damaging air pollution, were fitted with leatherless, allelectric valve actions.  A new console equipped with the most advanced solidstate control systems was built and installed.  The cabinet is made of Honduran mahogany, handrubbed with a tung oil enriched finish.  Since ivory is no longer available for keyboards, the playing surfaces are covered with hard maple and walnut.

The extant Skinner stops have been reregulated on their original wind pressures; they are now as close as possible to their original tone.  The pipes added in the 1969 enlargement have been revoiced to more closely match the Skinner sounds.  Rather than attempt to reconstruct the original Great Diapason Chorus, which had been totally removed in previous renovations, a new chorus was designed in modern American/French style by Allan J. Ontko.  It adds brilliance to the instrument while blending fully with and extending the Skinner foundations.

The rebuilt organ, completed in June of 1990, totals 57 ranks on four manuals and pedals.  It incorporates almost 30 ranks from the original organ, as well as 13 ranks from intervening renovations.  The rebuilding and reinstallation were accomplished primarily by William A. Smith and Vernon S. Elliott of the Ontko & Young firm.  The new console and windchests were built in the company’s Charleston workshop.  Voicing and tonal finishing were accomplished in the First Baptist sanctuary by Allan J. Ontko and Edna L. Young. The Positif Division was added in 2011 under the leadership of Allan Ontko and Thomas Chashen. The organ is currently under the care of the R.A. Colby Organ Company.