|hope college > campus development|
The college’s historic Skinner organ has returned from it’s
two-year restoration better than ever
A Jewel in the Crown
With a flick of a switch, the college’s Skinner organ comes to life.
Somewhere beneath the chapel, the motor has started humming, awaiting the command to breathe through the instrument and fill the space with music. Stand a little further away and that bit of background sound probably wouldn’t register, but from a vantage point near the chancel-based console, with the rest of Dimnent absolutely still, its quiet thrum conveys an impression of restrained power.
Nick Thompson-Allen, who has lovingly guided the two-year restoration of Hope’s cherished organ, is spending a final few hours on the project, checking the connections to assure that the newly returned instrument is flawless.
He plays a chord, and the music seems to come not from the eastern wall, where the mind knows the thousands of pipes are housed, but from everywhere and yet nowhere. The sound is not only in and from, but of the chapel, a voice that surrounds the listener.
Such is the quality of Hope’s organ, a work of art rendered in the latter 1920s by the nation’s foremost organ-builder at the height of his craft.
“The late-20s Skinner organs, from 1925 to 1930, in my opinion, anyway, were the best that they produced,” Thompson-Allen said. “They were the Duesenberg of pipe organs: beautifully made, beautifully constructed, beautifully conceived, beautifully voiced.”
“And this one is exceptionally good tonally, and the organ chambers work so well,” he said. “Even though it’s not a huge instrument, it’s terrifically powerful.”
Dr. Huw Lewis, college organist and professor of music, noted that the quality of the instrument itself is complemented by the precision with which it was matched to its locale, constructed at the same time.
“It’s a perfect fit for the chapel,” he said. “Many
organs, I’m afraid, are either too big or too small and for that
reason are not particularly effective or are not perfectly effective.
But the Hope organ, which is very rich in its tonal resources—it
has a lot of
According to Dr. Lewis, the college’s organ is from a “honeymoon
period” in the history of the Skinner company. Ernest M. Skinner
had become interested in English cathedral organs, and in the course
of learning about them had befriended the owner of
“And so the two of them came together and you had this amazing
product of two brilliant minds working harmoniously at a fever pitch,” Dr.
The Skinner company’s quality also included durability, which
served the college better than anyone would have imagined at the outset.
instrument, which was built in 1928 and installed in 1929, the year that
the chapel was dedicated, functioned for more than 75 years without any
major restoration. Moreover, it continued
“The fact that the organ was able to function at all for the last
15-20 years is of course a testimony to the astonishing quality of the
instrument,” said Dr. Lewis, who has taught at Hope since 1990. “The
organ had been rained on. Most organs that get rained on
Under the circumstances, the organ couldn’t be expected to function much longer, and so provision for its restoration was made in the recent Legacies: A Vision of Hope comprehensive campaign.
Choosing the A. Thompson-Allen Company to do the work, Dr. Lewis said, was easy—since it was akin to having the original Skinner company restore the instrument.
Nick Thompson-Allen’s father Aubrey founded the company more than
50 years ago to focus on organ restoration after having worked for both
the Willis company and, following World War II, during which the Willis
plant was destroyed, the Skinner
Based in New Haven, Conn., where it is responsible for the large Skinner organ in Woolsey Hall at Yale University, the company is respected worldwide for its work with Skinner organs. One recent commission even took the team to a centuries-old chateau in France that housed one the instruments.
At the same time, the college replaced the chapel’s flawed rooftop
drainage system to prevent the water damage from continuing. In the old
system, ice in the runoff pipes, which are built into the block walls,
could cause water to back up and leak through the
The company started bringing back the organ in January 2006, completing the installation this past summer. Tuning continued through the fall, with the instrument ready for a preliminary appearance during Homecoming Weekend’s Alumni Chapel Choir concert. Following additional refinement, it was ready to play its traditional major role during the Christmas Vespers services earlier this month.
A formal rededication concert is scheduled for Tuesday, Jan. 30, and Dr. Lewis is also planning a series of concerts throughout 2007 to further celebrate the instrument’s return.
Senior Richard Newman, a music major from Midlothian, Va., has performed
the organ both before and since its restoration— including as
a featured artist during the recent Homecoming concert and Christmas
Vespers services. He was impressed with
“It’s a bit hard to explain the difference,” said
Newman, who plans to continue on to graduate school after Hope, ultimately
planning to become an organist for a high-church liturgical parish. “It’s
as if stained glass had become dirty and you clean that stained
Dr. Lewis has been similarly impressed with the change.
“It was hard for me to imagine that the organ was going to sound better than it did because it was always an incredible sound,” he said. “I knew that it would work better. I didn’t expect the difference in the sound to be so compelling.”
In some ways, Dr. Lewis noted, lack ofresources for restoration in the
past likely served the college well. As the years passed, many Skinner
organs were modified to reflect new priorities in organ education and
performance, the result being that relatively
“There are really a handful only of these instruments that survived from 1927-28, and Hope is one of those fortunately untouched,” he said.
Through the years, some small changes were made to the Hope instrument.
For example, one set of pipes had been shortened to modify the sound—which
the restoration changed back by lengthening them according to specifications
from records salvaged when the Massachusetts-based Skinner company closed.
At another point, one of the Hope organ’s air reservoirs had been
replaced (the original was retained by a former student who didn’t
wish to see it discarded and gave it back to the college so
Dr. Lewis himself wrestled with whether or not to leave the organ intact when he joined the faculty. Hope organ students, he knew, would be served better by an organ designed to help them learn a wider variety of music than the Skinner is equipped to feature. Early in his tenure, he had a builder visit and consider refining the console accordingly. The builder spent three days on campus assessing the organ, and then talked Dr. Lewis out of giving him the job.
“When we met, he said, ‘Huw, this is not probably what you
want to hear, but I would change not a thing on the instrument, including
the console. I would not modernize the console. I would keep everything
as it is,’” Dr. Lewis
recalled. “He said, ‘When
“He was right,” Dr. Lewis laughed. “It was not really what I wanted to hear.”
Fortunately, a solution presented itself a few years later, when a contribution
for a new studio organ provided the teaching instrument that Dr. Lewis
had desired. Constructed by J.W. Walker and Sons Ltd. Of Suffolk, England,
the new instrument was
“So I was able then, without any conflict in my mind between balancing stewardship and the teaching mission, to press for a historic restoration which then gave us the best of both worlds,” Dr. Lewis said. “We now have a wonderful, flexible teaching instrument in the studio that can teach pretty well those stylistic periods of music that are important that the Skinner does not really address, and also have a masterpiece like the Skinner in the chapel which does its thing better than any other instrument can possibly do.”
“We’re pleased to have been able to preserve something that really
has a unique place in the history of the college insofar as this is
the instrument that has assisted all of our worshipers in that chapel praising
God for the last 70 years, and also is of unique
“It’s a real jewel in the crown of Hope College.”
Editor’s Note: Although the Hope community will benefit from
their craftsmanship for decades to come, most will never meet the artisans
who have restored the Skinner organ. In addition to Nick Thompson-Allen,
the A. Thompson-Allen Company team includes Nick Thompson-Allen’s
business partner, Joseph Dzeda, Kurt Bocco, Chris Downey, Brooks Barnett
and Nate Smith, all based in New Haven, and Richard Houghten of Milan,
Mich., who worked on the console shell and its wiring. Their work is
treasure, a news from Hope College article written about the Skinner
organ in Feburary 2005.