Cover Feature

June 30, 2015

The Parish of All Saints, Ashmont; Dorchester, Massachusetts

Skinner Organ Company,
Opus 708—1929

Restoration by Joe Sloane, Jonathan Ortloff,
Jonathan Ambrosino

 

The City of Boston boasts Episcopal churches both grand and humble. In the Anglo-Catholic tradition, two stand out. The better known is the Church of the Advent on Beacon Hill, one of the earliest parishes in the United States to propagate Oxford Movement principles. The Advent’s sister congregation is the Parish of All Saints, Ashmont, in Dorchester. Annexed to Boston in 1870, Dorchester today is a patchwork of class and culture, its lower neighborhoods filled with triple-deckers once intended as worker housing, its grander homes standing proud on the hills and parks.

The Parish of All Saints was founded as a chapel in 1867, serving primarily English railway workers. By 1872 the congregation built a wood-frame church. One snowy Sunday in 1879 a carriage driver, unable to take his Unitarian master and mistress from Milton to downtown King’s Chapel, suggested they stop to worship at All Saints instead. Struck by the experience, Colonel Oliver and Mary Lothrop Peabody were eventually confirmed in the Episcopal Church, and began a relationship of beneficence to All Saints that resulted in a pivotal example of American architecture. All Saints is the first major work of Ralph Adams Cram and Bertram Grosvenor Goodhue, instigating a new Gothic revival that would dominate American church building until World War II. First inhabited in 1894, All Saints was embellished for the next three decades as something of a laboratory for Gothic design. Two chapels were added, and eventually all three altars richly developed. The stone reredos can be seen as a foreshadowing of Goodhue’s later masterpiece at St. Thomas Fifth Avenue; in the Lady Chapel triptych stands Johannes Kirchmayer’s most exquisite carving.

Despite its elegant home, All Saints remains the proud working-class sibling of its posh Beacon Hill sister. The congregation is diverse in that word’s un-political sense, reflecting its neighborhood, the heritage of Anglican missionaries in the Caribbean and West Indies, and that strand of humanity that will always drive past other churches for liturgical expression in this style. The Choir of Men and Boys, founded in 1888 and once among dozens in the Diocese of Massachusetts, is today the last surviving. It offers music at the Sunday High Mass and special feasts, but also safe haven and pocket income for boys of many stripes. Notable musicians have served here, none more famous than Archibald T. “Doc” Davison, who later went to Harvard and found fame as conductor of the Glee Club; and later Herbert Peterson, Joseph Payne, Michael Kleinschmidt, and Fred Backhaus. Organ scholars and assistants have included Ray Nagem, Hatsumi Miura, and Andrew Sheranian, the latter returning in 2010 to assume his present position as organist and choirmaster.

If Ernest Skinner once complained that Cram made beautiful churches with terrible organ chambers, Ashmont’s is the sorry prototype—a shanty with insubstantial walls and inhospitable rooflines. In 1902 Hutchings-Votey provided 28 stops on tubular-pneumatic action; in 1910 came the present carved façades, tracery, and pipes. William Laws electrified the action in 1930 and moved the console to its present location, though retaining a mechanical swell linkage, parts of which survive. Through the late 1950s and early 1960s, Boston organbuilder Thad Outerbridge made considerable tonal revisions, transforming the original Taftian tonal scheme into something more energetic, articulate, and brilliant. This was done with respectable craft and for next to nothing on the original chassis, which, in contravention of the usual mid–20th-century tale that electro-pneumatic actions can only be short-lived, remained in functioning order for almost eight decades.

When in the late 1970s failure became too widespread to ignore, the church’s devoted musician, Herb Peterson, cast about for a rebuild. The project, done with good intentions by builders “from away,” resulted in a mechanical mayhem of old and new parts. The organ limped along from 1981 until C.B. Fisk installed a fine three-manual, Opus 103, in a new nave gallery in 1995. For a time, it provided all accompaniment, but secure choral leadership proved too challenging at such distance. Judicious rebuilding of the chancel organ by George Bozeman in 1999 allowed 20 of the 34 stops to play again. From that point on, a pattern developed whereby the organist plays voluntaries and hymns on the Fisk, and walks forward to conduct choral portions. (The structure of the Mass, and the placement of the minor propers, makes this a more logical commute than may first appear.)

However diverse its congregation, All Saints suffers no confusion of liturgical or musical aims. The only paid positions are the rector, organist, and professional choristers (including all boys and teens); there is neither sexton nor secretary, but vigorous lay involvement. In modern times, a modest endowment and faithful pledging have kept the parish in humble health. When the realities of a 120-year-old structure forced a full-scale restoration, it was clear that what the building demanded was well beyond what the parish could ever hope to afford. In a stroke of fortune almost too staggering for comprehension, the church received, first, an anonymous gift to cover an in-depth existing conditions survey, and, later, an eight-figure grant to fund not only the vast majority of a comprehensive renovation but also a matching amount toward a $2 million preservation endowment. These developments energized the parish to undertake additional fundraising, completing a project many had considered impossible.

As these events unfolded, the plight of the chancel organ was never entirely absent—the cherry on a sundae that itself could scarcely be afforded. But certain gentlemen of the choir were not entirely indisposed to vision, and ears pricked up when one of my tuning helpers, organist Joshua Lawton, told me about Skinner Opus 708 in the now-closed First Methodist Church of North Adams, Massachusetts. While a student at Williams, Josh had served a year as organist at First Methodist, and he gave good reports of the organ’s tone and unaltered condition. A visit in October 2011 disclosed one of the last instruments built at Skinner’s subsidiary plant in Westfield, Massachusetts, of exactly the right size and scope for All Saints. A second visit in December included All Saints’ rector, Father Michael J. Godderz, and a group of opinion leaders. Everyone liked what they saw and heard, so another choir gentleman, Timothy Van Dyck, set about writing friends of his parents, who just happened to be lovers of Skinner organs and were prepared to donate generously. Their initial gift made possible the purchase, removal, and storage of Opus 708 in June 2012, a task undertaken by Joe Sloane, myself, members of the Organ Clearing House, and a group of volunteers from All Saints. The example of our generous couple eventually inspired others, including the Joseph Bradley Charitable Foundation. A September 2014 fundraising concert by William Porter, on the Fisk and Skinner organs at Harvard University’s Memorial Church, brought our Skinner project to full funding.

The enthusiasm for a Skinner at All Saints was rooted in the conviction that any accompanimental instrument should equal the resplendence of the building’s other appointments. Since the Fisk handily addresses literature and congregational singing, a chancel organ could focus on choral support without distraction. An organ in the orchestral style was not as important as having a palette of smooth, subtle, and timeless tone that, even at its most energetic, would not compete with voices. In Opus 708 we were grateful to find equal balance between chorus work and color stops, warm foundations and telling mixtures.

From a restorer’s point of view, Opus 708 had led a charmed life. The cool mountain air had kept summer humidity at bay, while a damp basement blower location seems to have prevented dry winter baking. Downsides were few. Some water damage in the Swell had led to compromised rebuilding, but in only one offset chest. And the basement dampness eventually encouraged a vivid yellow mold to overtake both blower and static reservoir. These components were left in place, where they doubtless glow still. Otherwise, the ethic of this project was not unlike that applied to the church itself: restore as conservatively as possible, avoid anachronism, place reliability and longevity above all. This philosophy meant that any technique that might benefit the mechanism—dowel-nutting for wind-tightness, replacing cork gaskets with leather, more securely fitting reservoir wind boxes—was eagerly adopted. Where some aspect of Westfield construction was merely different from the Boston Skinner factory, it was preserved; where sub-standard, it was sensitively refashioned to promote wind-tightness and seasonal security. We also felt it was time to reconsider certain cosmetic practices that have become commonplace in the restoration of these instruments. In the end, we preferred to introduce no new shellac on wood or common metal pipes, to retain and carefully refit the original tuning sleeves, and to wipe clean most wooden surfaces and keep their gorgeous finish intact rather than sand or introduce additional coats of shellac. It was necessary to refinish the three-manual console cabinet and bench to match the new surroundings, but all internal machinery was restored, including the original combination action. We never considered any other option, and thought it beneficial that organ scholars learn the old skills of hand-registration on this manageable little instrument. The Skinner console sits where the Laws one did, a bit higher for better visibility. With its original ivory and lustrous wood, it seems entirely at home.

Re-engineered in a now-sturdy chamber, Opus 708 speaks with both greater clarity and profundity than the old organ ever did. Fortunately, Cram’s thorny chamber is similar to the one in North Adams, but it was still sheer luck that CCC of the Contrebasse (the organ’s only mitered flue pipe) tucks up less than a half-inch from the ceiling. In the end, one stop had to be added. Part of All Saints’ prior chancel organ was a copper horizontal trumpet in the nave tower, which some in the congregation were keen to see preserved. This we have done, but inside the organ chamber, using a Skinner windchest, Skinner reservoir, and Skinner pipes, including a 16-foot extension. The blower for the old stop has been incorporated as a booster, providing the Tromba with its 12-inch pressure in a line that continues under the chancel to wind the console. Skinner electro-pneumatic switching from the 1928 Princeton Chapel organ (kindly donated by the A. Thompson-Allen Company) conveys the necessary signals; Tromba and Trombone knobs from the 1926 Skinner console at Boston’s Trinity Church (generously contributed by Nelson Barden) have been fitted, displacing original Chimes knobs. The engraving doesn’t match; we don’t mind.

The two people most responsible for this project are Joe Sloane and Jonathan Ortloff. Joe worked for Nelson Barden for 25 years and is one of the most thorough and sensitive restorers anywhere of this type of instrument. Jon trained with Steve Russell in Vermont and spent two years at Spencer Organ Company before recently establishing his own enterprise. With deliberation and patience over 20 months, these gentlemen have reviewed, engineered, restored, and considered how this job might best unfold. Joe’s son Ian has been on hand to help, and I have had a voice in the organ’s engineering, layout, and other major decision points, as well as restoring flue pipes, undertaking general coordination, and all contractual and financial management.

In this effort our small team has been materially aided by colleagues of longstanding. Our friends at Spencer Organ Company provided a good deal of leathering, as well as assistance in flue pipe restoration, principally from Martin Near. The good men of the A. Thompson-Allen Company “found” a hole in their schedule to help with offset chest and tremolo restoration. Christopher and Catherine Broome did their usual superb job on the organ’s five reeds, particularly in making a convincing 73-note register out of three partial Skinner ranks. Mike Morvan did beautiful restoration on the keyboards, while Amory Atkins, Terence Atkin, Joshua Wood, and Dean Conry brought their usual steam-locomotive energy to dismantling, moving, and building everything in their path. Finally, Duane Prill took time from his busy schedule to help in the tonal finishing. The organ was brought into use on May 10, in a fairly spectacular packed-house evensong in honor of Our Lady, which also celebrated the 50th anniversary of the ordination of the Reverend F. Washington Jarvis, priest associate of the parish for 39 years. The instrument saw completion this month.

 

 

Of the 750-odd instruments to bear “Skinner” on their nameplates prior to the merger with Aeolian, 27 were installed within the city limits of Boston. These included church organs such as Old South and Trinity; theatre organs at the Capitol (Allston) and the downtown Metropolitan; five residence installations, including one with a tin façade; and the factory studio, on which player rolls were recorded and clients wooed.

Of these 27, not a single one survives—certainly not in any form Ernest Skinner would recognize. They are either altered beyond recognition or discarded. Therefore, to return a Skinner organ to Boston (even one built in Westfield) goes beyond the satisfaction of giving a good organ a worthy home. It simply feels better knowing that this pivotal American organ-builder is now represented not merely in his hometown but right in his old neighborhood, just a few miles from his old Dorchester factory and first house. To execute the project in a purposely conservative manner seems just as right for All Saints, a church in which the old ways hold forth not archaically but with purpose, vitality, and joy.

—Jonathan Ambrosino