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The college’s historic Skinner organ has returned from it’s two-year restoration better than ever

The college’s Skinner organ, which has been acclaimed as one of the best instruments made by the Skinner Organ Company, has returned after nearly two years away for its first major restoration since being installed more than seven decades ago. Back in time for the Homecoming alumni worship service, it is shown being performed by senior Richard Newman with the assistance of senior Chris Turbessi.

Creating the organ's signature sound are thousands of pipes, some several feet tall and others, some shown here, only a few inches long, each precisely placed and voiced.

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
power, a lot of delicate color sounds—works perfectly in the chapel. And that’s really very unusual.”

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
the Willis organ company of Great Britain, which was also highly regarded. One of Willis’s employees, G. Donald Harrison, even came to the U.S. and started working with Skinner.

“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. Lewis said.

It was an all-too-brief moment. By the early 1930s, Skinner and Harrison had fallen out and parted ways.

The Skinner company’s quality also included durability, which served the college better than anyone would have imagined at the outset. Hope’s 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
to function even though structural problems in the chapel allowed water into the pipe chambers—probably from the beginning.

“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
simply can’t function at all, but this instrument still survived.”

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

“The late-20s Skinner organs...were the Duesenberg of pipe organs; beautifully made, beautifully constructed, beautifully conceived, beautifully voiced”
Nick Thompson-Allen, lead organ restorer

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.

The A. Thompson-Allen Company conducts only one major restoration at a time. The Hope project began in January 2005, when the company began removing some of the organ’s 2,932 pipes, which range from smaller than a little finger to 18 feet in
length, most metal and some wood. The company completed the removal in March 2005, and returned in the summer of 2005 to rebuild the water-damaged chambers— choosing to do the latter work instead of relying on a traditional contractor to assure
that the finish was optimal acoustically.

Work in June included checking the connections to the console. The instrument is not unlike a 1920s-era computer, miles of wire linking keystrokes to effect.

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
fittings, spilling into the chambers. New pipes and the addition of strategically placed overflow spouts on the outside of the chapel have defeated the problem.

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
the instrument even in its pre-restored state, but now, he said, “it sounds even better.”

“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
glass to reveal its true beauty. It’s still stained glass, but more colorful and bright— the way it was meant to be. If Skinner himself walked into Dimnent today, he would definitely recognize his organ.”

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
few remain true to their original character. Hope, of necessity, largely left its Skinner alone.

“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
that it could be reinstalled as part of the restoration).

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
the dust settles on this time in our history, the Hope organ will stand as one of the top three or so masterpieces of Skinner.’”

“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
dedicated in October 2000, installed in a specially designed addition to Nykerk Hall of Music.

“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
quality in the history of our culture,” he said.

“It’s a real jewel in the crown of Hope College.”

Members of the Thompson-Allen team who restored the organ work in March at reinstalling some of the largest, wooden pipes in one of the chambers that flank the chancel.

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 appreciated.

This article, written by Greg Olgers '87, was originally featured in the December 2006 issue of news from Hope College.

Photo Gallery Featuring the Skinner Organ's Return

Restoring a treasure, a news from Hope College article written about the Skinner organ in Feburary 2005.