A Brief History of the Westminster Organ
The organ at Westminster Presbyterian
enjoys a special place in the life of this church on two distinct fronts:
First, it has been serving the congregation almost without interruption since
its installation at the time of the church’s foundation in 1926. Second, in its
current, nearly original condition, it exemplifies in the best sense of the
word, the American Symphonic concept in organ design.
After its construction, tastes in organ
design shifted dramatically toward what was perceived as a more authentic or
“German Baroque” sound, Fortunately, in 80 years of service, none of Westminster’s past music directors yielded to the temptation to compromise the organ’s
The organ was built by Theodore Lewis
and William Hitchcock, former managers with Ernest M. Skinner & Company.
They built the organ adhering verbatim to the construction and tonal principles
established by Ernest M. Skinner. Skinner pitman chests are used throughout,
and a review of the stop list demonstrates Lewis’s and Hitchcock’s indebtedness
to Skinner in their preference for building the sonic palette around
distinctive orchestral tone colors at eight-foot pitch, including multiple
ranks of diapasons of varying powers among the divisions, culminating with the large-scaled
First Diapason of the Great Organ. One additional attribute that contributes
significantly to the organ’s success is the favorable acoustical environment in
which it sits. The stone, glass and painted-plaster interior of Westminster affords, when empty, 4 ½ seconds of reverberation.
By 2006 long-term water damage necessitated
a re-leathering of the instrument. The decision was also made to make certain
tonal additions to it – not to change in any way, but rather, to complete
the concept as envisioned by the 1926 builders. Lewis and Hitchcock had made provisions
for these additions on the console jambs by placing blank drawknobs where the
stops should go, and also by sizing the pipe chambers to amply accommodate
In researching the organ’s completion,
attention was given to the tonal designs of other organs contemporaneous with
and having similar stoplists to Westminster’s. Most notable of these were the
E.M. Skinner organs at Old Cabell Hall at the University of Virginia, and at First Presbyterian Church in Wilmington, North Carolina. Pipework was made by
the firm of Jacques Stinkens, Orgelpijpenmakers B.V. of Zeist, Holland, matched
to samples sent from the Westminster organ. Gregory A. Hand, of Lynchburg, Virginia was awarded the contract for the restoration and the tonal additions.
The end product is an instrument that
exemplifies one of the finest hours of American organ design, versatile enough
to accompany a choir as well as a full congregation in worship. Additionally,
in its current state, it presents itself anywhere from capable to exceptional in
its ability to give expression to the great works from the organ literature
across all centuries.