South Church is home to a wonderful world-class pipe organ. Built over 60 years ago and upgraded and overhauled several times, the pipe organ’s over 3,000 pipes offer a broad palette of sound that complements and often serves as the centerpiece of the South Church music program.
In the early 1900s, the original, hand-pumped organ at South began to develop defects. In 1928, Miss Sarah Masters, whose school began in Wilde House next door, chaired a committee to raise money for a new organ. With this money, they purchased a used organ from Central Presbyterian Church in Manhattan, and installed it at South Church. The organ was built by the Austin Organ Company in 1898. At the time of its transfer to South Church, the organ had 1,979 pipes in 33 ranks (sets of pipes) and 36 stop controls. The organ was completely refurbished in 2005.
The History of the South Church Pipe Organ
South Presbyterian Church was organized in the 1820’s and the current building was completed in 1863. In the early 1900’s, the original, hand-pumped organ began to develop defects. Letters state “the hand pump, manipulated for some many years by young men of the congregation, had been replaced by an automatic blower…but…the now-wheezy instrument was worn out. Unexpected notes were as disconcerting to the organist as those that did not sound at all.”
Miss Sarah Masters, whose school began in Wilde House next door, chaired a committee to raise $10,000 for a new organ. Teams of canvassers worked with such zeal that $15,839.17 was raised in less than one month. This work is commemorated in a plaque at the back of the church just outside the door to the bell tower.
With this money, they purchased from Central Presbyterian Church in Manhattan, and installed at South Church, a used organ originally built by the Austin Organ Company in 1898, the same year that Austin installed its first organ (Opus 22) in the Horace Bushnell Church (Hartford, CT). Thus, the South Church organ, although called Opus 53 and later Opus 570, is one of Austin’s first. At that time of its transfer to South Church, the organ had 1,979 pipes in 33 ranks (sets of pipes) and 36 stop controls.
Dr. D. DeWitt Wasson, organist-director of music at South Church for fourteen years, was widely known throughout the United States as an organist, educator, and musicologist. He was also the unofficial curator of the organ, working closely with the Austin Organ Company on the specifications for a new organ console and the complete renovation of the organ action.
The Gress-Miles Organ Company was selected to redesign, rebuild, and enlarge the organ. Tonal design and finishing by G. Edgar Gress, which required lowering the wind pressure from 5 inches of water to 2.25 inches of water, changed the organ’s character to that of the classic Germanic instruments played by Johann Sebastian Bach.
Following the 1959 restoration, several renowned organists conducted recitals at South Presbyterian Church. André Marchal, the famous blind organist from the Church of St. Sulpice in Paris, France, played the opening recital, followed in the early 1960s by Robert Noehren, renowned international concert organist, organ scholar/teacher, and organ builder. Mr. Noehren praised the pedal mixture on the organ, stating that it was the best in America.
A new chancel organ of seven ranks, a gift of the Fink family and designated the Fink Memorial Organ, was built by Richard Minnich of Mount Kisco. This was the first chancel organ in the area to be hung on the wall of a church in the European manner.
Valuable for antiphonal effects, for accompanying the choir, and for increasing the flexibility of registration available to the organist, the chancel organ contain 427 pipes made and voiced in Europe. The walnut organ case, designed in the European style, is equipped with movable plexiglass shutters to allow modulation of sound without hiding the pipes.
A rank of festival trumpet pipes was installed by Minnich-Steinkampf. At this time, the South Church organ was the second largest organ in Westchester County, New York and the only organ with a festival-trumpet rank.
1983 – 1985
The organ was evaluated by Austin Organ Company, John L. Randolph Pipe Organ Company, Ferguson Pipe Organ Service, Martin Boehling, and OrganMechanix (Russell Minerd). All concluded the organ was in generally good shape and worth repairing. OrganMechanix was engaged to re-leather approximately 835 bellows.
1986 – 1987
Re-leathering the bellows was completed. Repairs were also made to several of the pneumatic actions. Peter Batchelder was engaged to provide on-going maintenance and tuning.
Many ivory coverings of the keyboards’ white keys were missing and broken. The keyboards were removed from the organ and transported to Wells, Maine, where new ivories were installed by Russell Grethe, one of the best keyboard restorers on the Eastern seaboard.
2004 – 2005
The current form of the organ was realized in 2005. At the urging of Peter Batchelder, and with funding obtained largely from a generous gift to the Organ Fund by Carl Honzak (a member of South Church since the 1950’s and a great supporter of both the music program and the organ), Timothy Fink & Company was selected to perform a major overhaul of decaying infrastructure in the console, the chancel organ, and the main wind chest. South Church’s organist Shawn Hall oversaw and coordinated this ambitious project.
Out of service from the spring of 2004 through the summer of 2005, the organ was completely rewired, replacing a jumble of 50-year-old wires and broken down hardware, in the console and in the organ loft, with a modern, computer-based system. Thousands of wires were painstakingly replaced, and the console was completely rebuilt, including the new, special-purpose computer made by Classic Organ Works of Ontario, Canada. New stop tabs and their controls were installed, as part of which the stop list was altered slightly, without extra cost, to provide (for example) greater flexibility for the festival trumpet. The computer provides, without extra cost, many important benefits:
- 99 levels of stop-preset memory instead of just one, which allows greater tonal variety during a worship service previously impossible to achieve
- password-protected preset locks
- a programmable crescendo pedal
- an automatic transposer
- future expansion to MIDI
In the new system, a computer in the console encodes the organist’s actions (pressing keys, stops, and pedals) as digitized signals, and sends them to a companion computer in the organ loft’s main wind chest. There the digitized information is decoded to actuate electromagnets gating air to the pipes, and to control mechanical hardware such as swell shutters and tremulants.
This renovation improves the organ’s reliability, removes potential disruptions to church services, restores new life to the chancel organ, silences unwanted noise by repairing leaks and dampening vibrations, provides the power and flexibility of computer control, and lays the groundwork on which future repairs can be undertaken with confidence.
|Great Organ||Choir Organ|
|Super Octave||2’||Choir-to-Choir||16’, 4’|
|Hohlfloete||2’||Swell-to-Choir||16’, 8’, 4’|
|Unison Off||*Spitz Floete||4’|
|Great-to-Great||4’||*Spitz Floete Celeste||4’|
|Swell-to-Great||16’, 8’, 4’||*Principal||2’|
|Choir-to-Great||16’, 8’, 4’||*Scharf ½”||III|
|Festival Trumpet||16’, 4’|
|Swell Organ||Pedal Organ|
|Swell-to-Swell||16’, 4’||Doppel Floete||4’, 2’|
|Unison Off||Super Octove||2’|
|*Spitz Floete||2’||Swell-to-Pedal||8’, 4’|
|Choir-to-Swell||8’||Festival Trumpet||16’, 8’|
Wind Pressure: 2-1⁄4”
How an Organ Works
A pipe organ is a collection of tuned pipes that are sounded by admitting air to them from a wind chest. Centuries of pipe-organ development have yielded a rich variation in types of pipes, as well as mechanisms for sounding them. The collection of pipes of a given type is called a rank, and the organist’s control knob for a rank is called a “stop”, because when the stop is “off,” the sound of the rank is stopped. Ranks of pipes are denoted by the longest pipe in the rank. The longest pipe in an 8’ rank plays C two octaves below “middle C.” On any given key of a keyboard, a 4’ rank plays a note that is one octave higher than the note played by an 8’ rank using the same key; a 2’ rank plays a note that is two octaves higher, and so on.
In the South Church organ, air from a huge fan in the basement forces air through a large pipe into the wind chests of the main organ (rear) and the chancel organ (front). Air from the wind chest enters a particular pipe only if the organist turns on the stop controlling the pipe’s rank and also depresses the keyboard key corresponding to the pipe’s note. The main organ comprises four divisions (Great, Swell, Choir, and Pedal), each corresponding to a keyboard on the console, where 57 ranks of pipes are controlled via 65 stops and 24?? couplers. The latter, such as “Swell to Great 8’ ”, are couplers that allow playing pipes of one division (e.g. Swell) on a keyboard native to another division (e.g. Great).
The sound quality associated with each pipe is based on the material from which it is made, its shape, and the details of its construction. Pipes are typically made of metal or wood. Metal pipes traditionally have a round cross section, whereas wood pipes have a square cross section. The length of organ pipes ranges from 1/2” (creating the highest pitch) to 32 feet, (creating the lowest pitch), although a rank whose largest pipe would be 32-feet long is often made using pipes with closed ends, because closing the end lowers the pitch by an octave. Thus a “32-foot rank,” as in the South Church organ, is made from a rank of closed pipes, the largest being 16 feet long. The South Church organ contains approximately 3,034 pipes: 2,607 pipes in the main organ and 427 pipes in the chancel organ.