Ask Alma's Owl: Organ at St. Paul’s Chapel

March 25, 2014

Dear Alma,
I know pipe organs are called the king of instruments, but how did St. Paul’s Chapel come by its own musical crown?
—Melody

Dear Melody,

Your question is music to my ears. Thanks for piping up.

The 5,348-pipe organ is the creation of Ernest M. Skinner & Co., which was founded in 1901 and built organs for some of the most important concert halls, churches and universities across the United States. The company and the University signed a memorandum of agreement for construction of the St. Paul’s Chapel organ in 1905.

The organ at St. Paul’s has four tiered, manual keyboards with 51 ranks, or rows, of pipes. The organ keys are said to be mastodon tusk ivory from 20,000 years ago.

Bynum Petty, archivist of the Organ Historical Society, said that Aeolian-Skinner Organ Co. (a successor to the Skinner Organ Co.) set high standards for workmanship, and its organs were known for their excellent tone.

Indeed, Aeolian-Skinner is known for its American Classic organ design, which incorporated the best tonal elements of American, British, French and German organ traditions.

The company built organs for other universities like Harvard, Yale and Princeton, prep schools like Groton, and concert halls. “It’s like shopping at Tiffany’s for pipe organs. They were the best,” said Petty. In 1938, G. Donald Harrison, tonal director of Aeolian-Skinner, rebuilt the organ at St. Paul’s. Its console, which operates the keyboards and controls, was replaced in 1997.

Timothy Smith has played this musical instrument since 1999, when he was named University Organist. A Yale graduate, he holds a doctorate from the Manhattan School of Music. Smith said the organ is a delight to perform on from “its shimmering strings to the building-shaking full organ, grand sound.”

The organ is used regularly for weekly religious services, weddings and memorial services. The music department provides lessons on the Aeolian-Skinner organ for students on Fridays during the fall and spring semesters.

The sounds of the organ will continue to be heard for many years to come. It is maintained by family-owned Peragallo Organ Co., which also maintains other important organs in the metropolitan area, including at St. Patrick’s Cathedral.

This academic year, Provost John Coatsworth authorized $250,000 to restore parts of the organ to their original condition and voice.

“The Chapel is an historic gem on the Columbia campus; the organ is its diamond,” says University Chaplain and Associate Provost Jewelnel Davis.

—by Gary Shapiro

Send your questions for Alma's Owl to curecord@columbia.edu