The OHS Pipe Organ Database

BuilderID 51

Builder Identification

Boston, Massachusetts, 1932-1972.

Additional Notes

  • From the OHS PC Database, derived from A Guide to North American Organbuilders rev. ed. by David H. Fox (Organ Historical Society, 1997) —

    Formed by the merger of Aeolian Co. of New York City, New York, and Garwood, New Jersey, with Skinner Organ Co. of Boston, Massachusetts, on 2 Jan. 1932; reorganized 1943, built ammo boxes during the war; relocated to Randolph, Massachusetts, 1970; reorganized in 1971, closed in 1972.

    A new corporation using this name was formed in Pembroke, Boston, Massachusetts, in 1983, by John Hendriksen, David F. Gallagher, Theodore Ek, and Thomas Anderson. It was not a successor to the original Aeolian-Skinner. —Ed.
  • From the OHS PC Database Builders Listing editor, compiled from various sources as listed below, Feb. 7, 2016. —

     

    Overview
    Aeolian-Skinner Organ Co. was formed by the merger of the Aeolian Co. of New York City, New York, and Garwood, New Jersey, with the Skinner Organ Co. of Boston, Massachusetts, on 2 Jan. 1932. Aeolian was the leading maker of residence organs while Skinner was one of the premier names in church and concert organs. Ernest Skinner remained with the new firm until 1936 when he left to form a new firm in an attempt to reclaim his past glory building the symphonic style organ he had created. G. Donald Harrison led the tonal side of the company thereafter, later becoming president of the firm. Under Harrison, the firm created what became known as the 'American Classic' style; an attempt to create one instrument that could play a large part of the literature in a musical if not historically authentic manner. The concept was enormously successful in the 1930s through the early 1960s when the growing Organ Reform movement caused more high profile clients to turn to tracker action instruments.

    The firm was reorganized in 1943 when organ production was shut down as part of the war effort, the firm built ammo boxes during the war. The firm resumed organ building after the war, and was hard pressed to keep up with the long pent-up demand, building approximately 325 new organs from 1945 until 1956 with many of those instruments being four or five manual giants. This was in addition to rebuilding and enlarging many of the Skinner organs, recasting them in the American Classic mold. Harrison died suddenly in 1956, closing a chapter in American organ building. His long shadow cast his successors in an 'also ran' light, and tastes were changing in the organ world.

    Harrison was succeeded by Joseph Whiteford, who led the company for the next four years as president and tonal director. Whiteford stepped down as president in 1960, but remained as tonal director with John Tyrrell as president until 1966 when Donald Gillette purchased majority interest and took over both roles. The company struggled during the period for several reasons, not the least being the growing Organ Reform movement which led many clients to turn to mechanical-action instruments. The firm had also relocated to a new facility in Randolph, Massachusetts, 1970 after losing part of the old factory to highway expansion. The firm was reorganized in 1971 and Texas organ builder Robert Sipe was invited to lead the firm in a last ditch effort to revive the business, but the firm closed in 1972.

  • Timeline: Aeolian-Skinner Organ Co. 1932-1972

    1932 - merger of Skinner Organ Co. with pipe organ division of Aeolian Corporation to form Aeolian-Skinner Organ Co. Arthur Hudson Marks, President (1932-1939), E. M. Skinner, VP, Tonal and Technical Director (1932-1933)
    1933 - G. Donald Harrison appointed Vice-President and Tonal Director, E. M. Skinner retains VP, and Technical Director (1933-1936)
    1936 - Ernest M. Skinner leaves Aeolian-Skinner, and establishes his own firm in Methune Massachusetts as Ernest M. Skinner & Son Co.
    1939 - Arthur Mark Hudson dies, Harrison becomes President (1939-1956) and Tonal Director (1933-1956)
    1942 - Organ production ceased due to war effort, the company made coffins and wooden cases for artillery shells during this period (1942-1946)
    1946 - Organ production resumes as war-time restrictions are lifted
    1956 - G. Donald Harrison dies while tonal finishing Opus 205-A at St Thomas' Episcopal Church, New York City, New York
    1956 - Joseph Whiteford becomes President (1956-1960) and Tonal Director (1956-1966)
    1960 - John J. Tyrell becomes President (1960-1966); Joe Whiteford remains Tonal Director (1956-1966)
    1966 - Donald M. Gillett becomes President & Tonal Director (1966-1970)
    1970 - Robert L. Sipe becomes President & Tonal Director (1970-1972)
    1972 - Aeolian-Skinner closes

  • Presidents and Tonal Directors:
    Arthur Hudson Marks, President
    Ernest M. Skinner, VP, Tonal and Technical Director
    G. Donald Harrison
    Joseph Whiteford
    John J. Tyrell, President
    Donald M. Gillett
    Robert L. Sipe

  • Transition from Skinner to Aeolian-Skinner
    The Aeolian-Skinner corporation was the successor to the Skinner Organ Company. The merger with the Aeolian Co, was not so much a merger, as the acquisition of Aeolian by the Skinner firm. The first organs built by the new firm were very much Skinner organs, and would remain so until G. Donald Harrison replaced Ernest M. Skinner as the director of the firm's tonal designs.

    Ernest M. Skinner (1860-1960) apprenticed with the George Hutchings firm of Boston, and rose to become factory superintendent. He left Hutchings in 1902, formed a brief partnership with James Cole, then formed a succession of corporations own his own. Skinner was an innovator, and built mechanically solid organs with beautifully voiced pipes, some of his own invention. He was not an acute businessman, his firms were constantly on shaky financial footing, using the down payment from one instrument to complete the previous order. Financial stability was finally achieved when Arthur Hudson Marks became an investor and infused the struggling firm with sufficient capital. Marks became president of the reorganized firm, with Skinner as vice-president and technical director. The Skinner Organ Company won hundreds of prestigious contracts over the course of three decades, Skinner organs were heard in the Episcopal cathedrals of New York, Washington, Miami, San Francisco, and Los Angeles; in many of the larger protestant churches around the country, and in chapels or auditoriums at Harvard, Princeton, and the Universities of Michigan, Florida, and California. In 1932, the firm merged with the Aeolian Co., the leader maker of residence organs.

    The organs of Ernest Skinner were in a new style which he called the "Symphonic Organ" perhaps to distinguish it from the "Orchestral Organ" of Robert Hope-Jones. These organs were designed to play orchestral transcriptions, to accompany choirs and soloists, and to provide service music. They were not intended to perform the works of Bach and Buxtehude. Under G. Donald Harrison, Skinner's successor as technical director, the Skinner organ was gradually transformed into a more flexible instrument, capable of playing the works of the northern European Baroque style and other schools of organ composition.

  • Harrison and the American Classic
    G. Donald Harrison (1889-1956) was an Englishman who had trained with the Henry Willis firm. Henry Willis III had suggested him to Arthur Marks as the eventual replacement for Skinner who turned 60 years old in 1926. Harrison was familiar with the 'English ensemble' - the term used by a generation of American organists who played instruments that were mostly unison stops and lacked a principal chorus even on the Great. Under Harrison, Aeolian-Skinner gradually produced what became known as the American Classic Organ, an instrument that could play large portions of the historic literature, while still able to provide sounds that had become part of the expected 'church organ' sound: quieter stops that could provide meditative service music, expressive strings, flutes, and soft reeds to accompany choirs and soloists, and the Henry Willis signature full Swell with 16' reed.

    Under Harrison, the firm built organs in this blended style from the mid 1930s until his death in 1956. His organs in the 1930s show a gradual change from instrument to instrument, he added a second mixture to the Great on one organ, a different style trumpet to the Swell on the next, feeling his way cautiously. Work proceeded at a relaxed pace due to the shortage of orders in the depression era economy. The situation changed radically after the second world war, new orders poured in for the late 1940s and became a torrent in the 1950s. With so many new orders, and especially huge ones like Opus 1203, the First Church of Christ, Scientist - Extension in Boston, the factory fell further and further behind schedule. The company turned to buying metal pipes instead of making all of their own. John Tyrell was moved from engineering to the front office to help, he started a more formal scheduling procedure in an attempt to keep up with demand.

    During this period, many of Ernest Skinner's organs were rebuilt with considerable changes as well as additions, remolding them in Harrison's new, more versatile style. This had the consequence that there are very few untouched E.M. Skinner organs. It was not until the 1980s that appreciation began to grow again for Ernest Skinner's original instruments.

  • Whiteford Era
    Joseph Whiteford (1921-1978) succeeded G. Donald Harrison as the president and tonal director of Aeolian-Skinner. He followed the general path of Harrison within the established 'American Classic' style, but favored a leaner sound with narrower scaling of the Principals and brighter mixtures. During his tenure, Aeolian-Skinner built many of its concert hall instruments: New York, Philadelphia, and Washington. In 1960, John Tyrell (1931-2015) became president, while Whitford remained tonal director. Whiteford retired in 1966 due to health problems.

  • Donald Gillette: Another Attempt
    When Joseph Whiteford retired in 1968, Donald Gillett was offered the opportunity to buy controlling interest in the firm, he then became president and tonal director. Major projects finished under his tenure included completion of St. Bartholomew's Episcopal Church in New York City, Trinity Episcopal at Wall Street, and the Kennedy Center in Washington, D.C.

    Despite the successes, by this point in time, tracker action instruments (the 'Bach organ') had displaced the American Classic electro-pnuematic organ as the ideal at most colleges and conservatories, and many churches were following their lead. A consensus was reached within the company that someone who could build mechanical instruments was needed to lead the company in its next phase, even if electro-pnuematic organs remained their primary business. Robert Sipe of Texas was offered the job, and accepted it. Gillett left the company to make room for the new management, selling his controlling interest.

  • Finale for Aeolian-Skinner
    Robert Sipe was the last head of Aeolian-Skinner. During his brief tenure, the company built its first mechanical action instruments. Unfortunately, Sipe had little chance to make his mark with the company. Retirement of key personnel, losing part of the factory to a new freeway, and shortage of capital all seemed to conspire against the company. Had there been a better economy, and the company been given a bit more time, it might have gone on to a new era, instead it closed in 1972. The last few contracts were completed, or turned over to others, the remaining assets were sold, and the firm dissolved.

    Sipe returned to Texas and continued building organs under his own name. The remaining staff retired, went to work for other builders, or set up shop for themselves. The company that had survived the great depression of the 1930s, did not survive the smaller economic downturn of the 1970s. The firm, which under Harrison had been seen as the leader in the organ reform movement, was now viewed as a holdover from the electro-pnuematic era during a time when tracker action was seen as the only future for organ building.

  • Sources:

    • Jonathan Ambrosino, Ernest M. Skinner and G. Donald Harrison: Retrospective & Review Lecture delivered at the Organ Historical Society National Convention in Boston MA, summer of 2000.
    • Orpha Ochse, The History of the Organ in the United States, (Indiana University Press, 1975, Bloomington & London), 328, 379–385,
    • Lawrence I. Phelps, A Short History of the Organ Revival, (Reprinted from CHURCH MUSIC 67.1. On-line at LawrencePhelps.com), Accessed January 2015, http://lawrencephelps.com/Documents/Articles/Phelps/ashorthistory.shtml
    • John Tyrrell, Transcript of a speech given at the 1995 AIO Convention in San Jose, California, untitled. Available on-line at The Aeolian-Skinner Archives, under the 'History' tab.

     

    For further information on predecessor history, see Skinner Organ Co. and Ernest M. Skinner

     

  • Suggested for further reading:
     

    On-line:

    • Lawrence I. Phelps, A Short History of the Organ Revival, (Reprinted from CHURCH MUSIC 67.1. On-line at LawrencePhelps.com) online at http://lawrencephelps.com/Documents/Articles/Phelps/ashorthistory.shtml.
    • John Tyrrell, Transcript of a speech given at an AIO convention, untitled. Available on-line at The Aeolian-Skinner Archives, under the 'History' tab, or directly at http://aeolianskinner.organsociety.org/john_tyrrell_transcript.html.

    In Print:

    • Charles Callahan, The American Classic Organ: A History in Letters, (The Organ Historical Society Press, 1990)
    • Orpha Ochse, The History of the Organ in the United States, (Indiana University Press, 1975, Bloomington & London) — While the entire book is a standard for the history of American organ building, chapters 15 through 17 give a concise history of the three major trends in the twentieth century: the Symphonic style of Ernest Skinner, the American Classic of G. Donald Harrison, and the Neo-Baroque style of the earlier Organ Reform movement.

Database Entries

There are 960 entries in the database that describe organs by Aeolian-Skinner Organ Co.


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Nameplate. Photograph by Jim Cook

Whiteford nameplate. Photograph by Jim Cook

Nameplate. Photograph by William T. Van Pelt

Builder's nameplate. Photograph by Michael Shortal

Console: Aeolian-Skinner nameplate. Photograph by Hal Garrison

Console: Joseph S. Whiteford nameplate. Photograph by Hal Garrison

Whitehead Nameplate. Photograph by William T. Van Pelt

Builder's Nameplate. Photograph by William T. Van Pelt

Nameplate. Photograph by Len Levasseur

Manuals, Builder's Nameplate, Swell Pedals, and Toe Studs. Photograph by Dr. Glen D. Arfsten

Builder's Nameplate. Photograph by William T. Van Pelt

Builder's Nameplate. Photograph by William T. Van Pelt

Designer's Nameplate. Photograph by William T. Van Pelt

Builder and Designer Nameplates. Photograph by William T. Van Pelt

Manuals and Builder's Nameplate. Photograph by Susan Reim

Builder's nameplate. Photograph by Bryan Dunnewald

Manuals and Builder's Nameplate. Photograph by Bryan Dunnewald

Builder's Nameplate. Photograph by Bob Bausmith

Builder's Nameplate. Photograph by Ryan Mueller

Tonal Designer's Nameplate. Photograph by Haig Mardirosian

Builder's Nameplate. Photograph by Haig Mardirosian

Builder's Nameplate. Photograph by Jim Deal

Builder's Nameplate. Photograph by Ryan D. Hulshizer

Builder's Nameplate. Photograph by Paul Harris

Builder's Nameplate. Photograph by Claude Fabinyi

Installer's Nameplate. Photograph by T. Bradford Willis

Nameplate. (2014) Photograph by Peter Fennema

Builder's Nameplate. Photograph by T. Bradford Willis

Builder's Nameplate. Photograph by Christian Draper

Builder's Nameplate. Photograph by Jeremiah Mead

Renovation Nameplate and Console Controls. Digital photograph by John Thuringer