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 concept.

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 future additions.

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.