A History of Skinner Organ Company Opus 820 at the Cathedral of Our Lady, Queen of the Most Holy Rosary, Toledo, Ohio

September 30, 2017

Paul Monachino serves as director of music and organist at Our Lady, Queen of the Most Holy Rosary Cathedral in Toledo, Ohio, and also director of liturgical music for the Diocese of Toledo. He completed a Bachelor of Music degree at Heidelberg University in Tiffin, Ohio, and a Master of Music at Indiana University, Bloomington. He is a member of the American Guild of Organists, the Organ Historical Society, the National Association of Pastoral Musicians, and the Conference of Roman Catholic Cathedral Musicians.  

On January 24, 1931, the first boxcar containing Skinner Organ Company Opus 820 left Boston en route to the new cathedral in Toledo, Ohio—Our Lady, Queen of the Most Holy Rosary. After many months of planning and developing the stoplist, the dream of installing an organ from the finest American builder of the early 20th century was soon to be a reality. Norbert Fox, the cathedral organist, kept a copy of the stoplist on a side table in his home and perused it daily, anticipating with great delight the beautiful and majestic sounds that would soon fill the cathedral.

Ground was broken for the unique Spanish Plateresque-style cathedral in 1924. In early 1929, with construction nearing completion, final negotiations with Ernest Skinner were in the works. The contract was prepared on June 13, 1929. An interesting change to the contract was requested by Skinner. He wished to move the English Horn from the Choir to the Solo division. It was to be replaced in the Choir by an Orchestral Oboe (changed to a Flügel Horn in 1933 at the request of Norbert Fox). In a letter dated January 30, 1930, Skinner writes, “The English Horn was commonly placed on the Choir organ until a short time ago where I greatly improved its quality by a modification of design, and the new form works better on the Solo (wind) pressure than on the Choir. . . .”1 In concluding the letter Skinner writes, “I look your scheme over every day with renewed satisfaction. It gives me every opportunity to fulfill the confidence you have given me in according the Skinner organization a perfect opportunity to build a great work of art.”2 And in a letter of September 27, 1930, Mr. Skinner states, “I honestly believe this organ is going to be one of the greatest in America.”3 History has confirmed his belief as Opus 820, located in an outstanding acoustical environment, has come to be regarded as one of his finest efforts.

Three days of musical events marked completion of the organ’s installation. The first of these was a solo organ recital on June 2, 1931, by Palmer Christian of the University of Michigan, Ann Arbor. The following day witnessed a choral and organ program presented by the Cathedral Chapel Choir, Reverend Ignatius Kelly, choirmaster, accompanied at the organ by Norbert Fox and John Gordon Seely of Toledo’s Trinity Episcopal Church. The events concluded on June 4 with a performance of Edward Elgar’s The Dream of Gerontius. The organ had been in the cathedral for nine years when the edifice was finally dedicated in 1940.

The Muller Pipe Organ Company of Toledo cared for the organ after it was installed. Family patriarch Joseph Muller and his son Henry previously worked for Skinner in Boston. After rising to the position of principal installation foreman in the Skinner company, in 1919 Henry established his own organ maintenance shop in Toledo, Ohio. The Skinner organ in Rosary Cathedral was integral to a lively liturgical music program: ordinations, weddings, funerals, and other festive celebrations. It regularly accompanied the 80-voice men and boys choir for Sunday Mass. It was also heard daily at Mass by the students of the Cathedral School. The Gregorian Institute of America, established in Toledo (now GIA Publications, Chicago), held weeklong summer workshops at neighboring Mary Manse College, and participants attended daily Mass at the cathedral. Private recordings of the organ were made in the 1950s by Claude Legacé (organist-choirmaster from 1954 until 1961) and Valerian Fox, son of Norbert Fox. In 1966, Maurice Duruflé and his wife Marie-Madeleine performed on the organ; the concert’s first half featured selected movements of the Requiem conducted by the composer. The Muller family was always on hand for major occasions to ensure that the organ was functioning at its best. But after over 40 years of daily use, the organ was beginning to show its age through various mechanical failures.

In September 1979, following the renovation of the cathedral to conform to liturgical directives of the Second Vatican Council, organist-choirmaster Dr. Hugh Murray requested that attention now be given to restoring the organ. The Standing Committee on Sacred Music was charged with preparing a recommendation for the restoration of the Skinner organ. After study, consultation, and consideration of several proposals submitted to the committee, the diocese awarded a contract to K & D Pipe Organ Service Co. (Ken and Dorothy Holden) of Ferndale (Detroit), Michigan. The concept of the restoration was conservative, with no proposal to alter the tonal or mechanical systems of the organ. In 1980 the console was moved to the chancel floor from the former choir gallery in keeping with the renovated liturgical space that called for the choir to be in a more accessible position. The console was thoroughly restored during the move. Following this project, a phased restoration began with the removal of the Choir division to the K & D shop.

The Holdens ran a modest shop, performing much of the restoration work themselves. Work progressed slowly and at times came to a standstill due to unforeseen personal circumstances. The cathedral authorities became impatient with the slow progress, and in 1983 a mutual release agreement was issued, bringing the restoration project to a halt. This led to years of debate about how to proceed that nearly imperiled the existence of this important pipe organ.

In the spring of 1983 all the components of the Choir division that had been in the K & D shop were returned, but not reinstalled. The pipework of this division was stored throughout the triforium walkway of the cathedral. Overall, a number of critical stops, such as the Great 4 Octave, were completely unplayable, and numerous dead notes riddled almost every stop of the organ. The organ was in a nearly useless condition.

In a desire to preserve momentum for the restoration project, Hugh Murray and the cathedral authorities engaged local organ builder Daniel Pilzecker as a consultant. He recommended a rather conservative scope of work that included a new console and some minor tonal alterations and additions, some of which had been already considered in the 1979 proposals. Among the many recommendations in those years, there was considerable agreement that a new console should be provided and that the chorus reeds should be brightened. A request for proposal based on Pilzecker’s observations was sent to five organ companies. Two responded with a bid: the Muller company and the Williams-Stevens Organ Company of Cincinnati, Ohio (Mark Lively).  

In August 1983, Fr. Robert Donnelly, diocesan chancellor (and soon to be auxiliary bishop of Toledo), requested that the Diocesan Liturgical Commission form an ad hoc “Cathedral Committee” to recommend action to the bishop concerning the restoration of the organ and a new sound system. The first meeting was held in August 1983. Soon afterward the committee retained Dr. Robert Noehren as organ consultant and arranged for him to visit Toledo in January 1984. 

During this visit, Noehren met with the committee, surveyed the Skinner organ, and visited several other pipe organs in the Toledo area. A committee meeting including Noehren was arranged with Bishop James Hoffman. From the archival notes of these meetings it becomes clear that the committee was now wrestling with the decision of whether to restore the Skinner or replace it. One of the recorded comments (all anonymous) from the meeting is quite startling: “The Cathedral Skinner organ is not a great instrument and it never was one. It is not famous, and it never was.”4 The Organ Historical Society thought differently in awarding Opus 820 a Historic Organ Citation in 2006! A great deal of credit for the fame of this organ must go to Joseph Vitacco and his project to record landmark Skinner and Aeolian-Skinner organs throughout the United States. Four recordings of the Rosary Cathedral organ were produced by JAV Recordings, disseminating its artistic merit throughout the world.

Three proposals were recommended by Robert Noehren in a letter dated January 16, 1984. The first, and preferred, was to provide two new organs: a small choir organ in the sanctuary and a large “Great Organ” in the gallery. The Skinner organ would be sold, as a whole or parted out. If the cathedral were sentimentally attached to the Skinner organ a restoration could be accomplished but conversion to a direct-electric action was encouraged along with a new or rebuilt console and some tonal alterations. Noehren did note that the Skinner would be worthy of preservation as was the Hill Auditorium Skinner at the University of Michigan where he taught for many years. A third proposal for one free-standing organ in the apse was included although considered less than ideal. The committee had much to consider.

On January 30, 1984, a message was received from Sam Koontz of the Tellers Organ Company, stating that he would be passing through Toledo and would like to assess the cathedral organ. At a committee meeting the next day, Hugh Murray reported concerning Koontz that, “this item . . . is of no validity and need concern us no longer.” But time would bear out that this initial contact from Sam Koontz might very well be what preserved Opus 820. Koontz would follow up with a proposal to complete all unfinished releathering in the currently dismantled Choir division and reinstallation, address some console issues, repair dead stops in the Great and Solo divisions, and tune the organ. 

On February 11, 1984, Hugh Murray wrote a letter of memorandum to the cathedral committee concerning his reaction to Noehren’s recommendations that would become his guiding vision for the project. Murray reflected on the many years of study and discussion concerning the organ. He concludes, “I would love to hear and play again the fully restored Skinner Organ with all of its voices resounding throughout our magnificent, acoustically alive Toledo Cathedral.”

In March, the cathedral committee drafted a proposal for the bishop to “mothball” the Skinner organ and construct a new, freestanding organ in the apse. One must appreciate the perspective of the committee concerning Opus 820. Restored components and pipes lay scattered about the triforium, and most of the organ did not play. By some it was viewed as beyond revival. But for those who were able to see beyond its current condition, the vision of a completely restored instrument remained strong. As consultant, Noehren continued to be updated on the discussions and had undertaken more research on the various options. In light of the committee’s proposal to locate one new organ in the apse, rather than a new organ at either end of the cathedral, Noehren writes, “Since you have decided to have the organ in the sanctuary, I suggest you re-consider the possibility of restoring your present organ.”5 He mentions that he has identified several firms that could carry out this work, and that “for now it seems that the costs for doing so may be far below our earlier estimates.”6 And further, “The present organ is indeed a very good instrument.”7 Despite this suggestion, by a vote of six to one, the committee’s proposal to mothball the Skinner and construct a new organ in the apse was sent to the bishop on June 4, 1984. The bishop approved the proposal as a working document to be shared with various leadership groups in the diocese. 

In September 1984, Sam Koontz wrote a four-page letter to the cathedral committee responding to the proposal sent to the bishop. While he feared the die had been cast to abandon the Skinner organ, he felt compelled to rectify what he felt was “gross inaccuracy in factual information presented to the Committee by the consultant”8 and contained in the proposal. He deemed the work done by K & D to be of the highest quality and regretted the health issues that plagued the Holdens at that time. Concerning the “large parts of the organ that are disconnected” he mentions that the restoration work on the Choir division was complete and only in need of reassembly. The console restoration that was labeled “botched” was far from it and required final adjustments that were not carried out due to the termination agreement. He also questions the committee’s choice of Noehren as a consultant for a restoration of the Skinner organ, which was the original intent of the cathedral committee. It was well known that Noehren’s ideals of organbuilding were very far from those of Ernest Skinner. Koontz also debunks the fears of continued maintenance of the leather actions and a number of other issues. Relative to a new organ, he writes, “The Skinner organ possesses a quantity and quality of material which would not be possible to reproduce today, at any cost. No more refined reed tones have ever been produced, than those of the Skinner Organ Company.”9 Koontz proposed that he would complete the restoration of the organ for a price not to exceed $90,000.00 within three years.

Koontz concludes by urging the restoration of the organ: “If restoration of the Skinner organ does indeed prove to be prophetic, this is the greatest legacy the Committee could hope to leave to future generations in the Diocese of Toledo.”10  On October 25, 1984, after reviewing the letter, the committee invited Sam Koontz to attend a meeting and speak in more detail about his proposal.

Convinced of his abilities to revive the Skinner organ, the diocese initially awarded a contract to Koontz to re-install the Choir division and carry out some other work to complete the work the Holdens had begun. Subsequently, an additional contract was signed that culminated in thorough repairs and releathering of the organ by 1992. A celebratory rededication recital was presented by Todd Wilson on March 31, 1993. In the recital program Hugh Murray wrote, “(The late Sam Koontz) was a talented craftsman with strong convictions about restoring versus rebuilding/enlarging old organs. The Cathedral Skinner is a monument to his principles and dedication to his art as a restorer.” Opus 820 was now completely functional after over a decade of virtual silence. 

The work of Sam Koontz was admirable in preserving this magnificent instrument.  Since the work authorized by the diocese did not constitute a thorough restoration, in the years immediately following, numerous dead notes and other malfunctions continued to plague the organ. At the time it was decided to retain all of the original mechanisms with little intervention. Significant mechanicals—swell engines, tremolos, combination action—were not restored at all since they were functioning well at the time. Many of these unrestored items are now beginning to show signs of wear. The pipework is still in excellent shape, but many of the reed stops are in need of restoration of tuning scrolls and brass tongues. 

In 2009–2010 a survey of the organ was carried out by Jeff Weiler confirming that a thorough restoration of the organ was in order. 

 

To the casual listener, the  Cathedral  Skinner retains its general majesty and suave elegance. Upon closer inspection—certainly to organists and other musicians—the organ will sound tired. Beautiful tone is still unquestionably present, but not a single stop is even in tone or volume throughout its compass.

Fully restored, the organ would handily address any task that might be put before it. It has the potential to lead an assembly with great delicacy and sophistication. Still, it will be a revelation to even its most dedicated admirers just how much more polished, alive, and beautiful the sound will be once the pipes are fully cleaned and reconditioned.11

Requests for proposals were sent out to a select number of organ companies. In 2012 the proposal of the J. W. Muller Co. of Croton, Ohio, was accepted. Now the challenging work of funding the project begins. While there has been interest from several charitable foundations, neither the Diocese of Toledo nor the cathedral parish can financially contribute a significant amount to the project at this time. If the reader is interested in showing support for this project through a donation of any amount, visit the parish website at: http://rosarycathedral.org/donate/.

The goal is to provide a thorough restoration of the organ. This would include preservation of the original console while providing a new console with the latest technological controls for the organist.  As originally envisioned for the cathedral, a small antiphonal division created from vintage pipework will be installed to support congregational singing at the back of the nave. The successful completion of this project will allow the organ to function reliably for many years and preserve this pristine example of early twentieth century American organ building.

 

Notes

1. Letter from Ernest Skinner to Msgr. Anthony J. Dean, cathedral rector, January 30, 1930.

2. Ibid. 

3. Letter from Skinner to Msgr. Dean, September 27, 1930.

4. Minutes of the cathedral committee meeting, January 10, 1984, page 5, item 20.

5. Letter from Robert Noehren to Rev. Robert Doppler, chairman/director of the Toledo Diocesan Liturgical Committee, March 13, 1984.

6. Ibid.

7. Ibid.

8. Letter from Samuel Koontz to the cathedral committee, September 17, 1984, page 1.

9. Ibid, page 3.

10. Ibid, page 4.

11. Survey of Skinner Opus 820, Jeff Weiler & Associates, LLC, March 24, 2011, page 25.

 

Skinner Organ Company

Opus 820

GREAT (Manual II, 6 wind pressure)

16 Double Diapason 61

8 First Diapason 61

8 Second Diapason 61

8 Third Diapason* 61

8 Viola* 61

8 Harmonic Flute 61

8 Gedeckt* 61

8 Erzähler 61

4 Octave 61

4 Flute* 61

223 Twelfth 61

2 Fifteenth** 61

IV Chorus Mixture (15-19-22-26)** 244

IV Harmonics (17-19-flat 21-22)** 244

16 Trumpet** 61

8 Tromba** 61

4 Clarion** 61

Solo Reeds to Great

 

* Enclosed

** 10  wind pressure

SWELL (Manual III, enclosed,
6
wind pressure)

16 Melodia (open to low G) 73

8 Diapason** 73

8 Rohrflöte 73

8 Flute Celeste II 134

8 Salicional 73

8 Voix Celeste 73

8 Echo Gamba 73

4 Octave** 73

4 Flute Triangulaire 73

2 Flautino** 61

V Mixture (15-19-22-26-29)** 305

16 Waldhorn** 73

8 Trumpet** 73

8 Oboe d’Amore 73

8 Vox Humana 73

4 Clarion** 73

Tremolo

Swell 16

Swell 4

Harp (Choir)

Celeste (Choir)

 

**10″  wind pressure

CHOIR (Manual I, enclosed,
6
wind pressure)

16 Gamba 73

8 Diapason 73

8 Concert Flute 73

8 Gamba 73

8 Kleine Erzähler 73

8 Kleine Celeste (TC) 61

4 Gemshorn 73

4 Flute 73

223 Nazard 61

2 Piccolo 61

III Carillon (12-17-22) 183

16 Fagotto 73

8 Flügel Horn 73

8 Clarinet 73

Tremolo

Harp (TC, from Celesta)

Celesta 61 bars

Choir 16

Choir 4

SOLO (Manual IV, enclosed,
10
wind pressure)

8 Flauto Mirabilis 73

8 Gamba 73

8 Gamba Celeste 73

4 Orchestral Flute 73

16 Corno di Bassetto 85

8 Corno di Bassetto (ext)

8 English Horn 73

Tremolo

8 French Horn*** 73

8 Tuba Mirabilis*** 73

Solo 16

Solo 4

 

*** 20 wind pressure

PEDAL (6 wind pressure)

32 Major Bass 56

16 Diapason 44

16 Contra Bass 56

16 Metal Diapason (Great)

16 Bourdon (ext, 32 Major Bass)

16 Melodia (Swell)

16 Gamba (Choir)

16 Dulciana 32

8 Octave (ext, 16 Diapason)

8 ‘Cello (ext., 16 Contra Bass)

8 Gedeckt (ext, 32 Major Bass)

8 Still Gedeckt (Swell, 16 Melodia)

4 Super Octave (ext, 16 Contra Bass)

IV Mixture 128

32 Fagotto (ext Ch, 16 Fagotto)**** 12

16 Trombone**** 44

16 Waldhorn (Swell)

16 Fagotto (Choir)

8 Tromba (ext, 16 Trombone)****

 

**** 15 wind pressure

 

Couplers

Great to Pedal

Swell to Pedal

Swell to Pedal 4

Choir to Pedal

Choir to Pedal 4

Solo to Pedal

Solo to Pedal 4

Swell to Great

Choir to Great

Solo to Great

Swell to Choir

Solo to Choir

Solo to Swell

Great to Solo

Swell to Great 16

Swell to Great 4

Swell to Choir 16

Swell to Choir 4

Choir to Great 16

Choir to Great 4

Solo to Great 16

Solo to Great 4

 

Accessories

6 General pistons (thumb and toe)

10 Great pistons and Cancel (thumb)

10 Swell pistons and Cancel (thumb)

10 Choir pistons and Cancel (thumb)

5 Solo pistons and Cancel (thumb)

8 Pedal pistons and Cancel (toe)

General Cancel (thumb)

Set (thumb)

Great to Pedal reversible (thumb and toe)

Swell to Pedal reversible (thumb and toe)

Choir to Pedal reversible (thumb)

Solo to Pedal reversible (thumb)

Choir to Great reversible (thumb)

Solo to Great reversible (thumb)

Swell to Choir reversible (thumb)

Solo to Choir reversible (thumb)

Manual Stops 16 on/off (thumb)

Pedal Stops 32 on/off (thumb)

All Couplers on Cresc. on/off (thumb)

All Swells to Swell on/off (thumb)

Balanced Swell expression shoe

Balanced Choir expression shoe

Balanced Solo expression shoe

Balanced Crescendo shoe (with indicators)

Sforz. reversible (thumb and toe, with indicator)

Related Content

November 25, 2019
More than a century and a half after his birth, Ernest Martin Skinner (born January 15, 1866; died November 27, 1960) is still acknowledged to be one…
November 25, 2019
Embracing new, creative approaches, a groundbreaking initiative, “Playing and Preserving: Saving and Activating Philadelphia’s Historic Pipe Organs…
September 29, 2019
Control freaks A little over a year ago, I bought a slightly used 2017 Chevrolet Suburban. It replaced a 2008 Suburban that I drove 250,000 miles. I…