The Æolian-Skinner pipe organ at St. Bart's is the largest in New York City and one of the great examples of the American Classic organ. It is also central to the liturgical and concert life of the church.
For more than 90 years, St. Bart's has been an important factor in American church music with a large professional choir, an active music program and one of the largest pipe organs to be found in an American church. Over several decades, the choir's repertoire grew to include many oratorios and other large works, and the organ was enlarged through successive rebuildings to become an exceptional instrument for choral accompaniment, for the leading of congregational singing and for the performance of a broad spectrum of organ literature.
Excerpt from the New York City Organ Project, New York Chapter of the American Guild of Organists.
The organ in the present building was originally built by the Ernest M. Skinner Company of Boston, Massachusetts in 1918 and incorporated many ranks from instruments in the previous church by George F. Hutchings of Boston and J. H. and C. S. Odell of New York. A precedent was laid for the design of the Skinner organ in the Hutchings instrument of 1893 and 1896. It had several divisions in the chancel and rear gallery and was played through electric action from a movable four-manual console in the chancel. Much acclaimed in its day, this double organ was played by the famous conductor Leopold Stokowski who came from England in 1905 to become organist and choirmaster of St. Bartholomew's. Several years earlier, on New Year's Day 1901, the famed organist Edwin Lemare made his American debut on this instrument.
The Skinner organ in the new Park Avenue church consisted of nine divisions with pipes placed in the chancel and west gallery. The mechanism was entirely new, and the chests were of the electro-pneumatic Pitman type, perfected by Skinner. All divisions played from a four-manual console in the chancel. It was one of the firm's most prestigious instruments at the time.
In 1927, the expansion of the organ began. The Solo division was revised and transferred to the chancel and tonal changes were made elsewhere in the instrument. A fifth manual was fitted to the console in preparation of the addition of the Celestial organ, completed in 1930. Located in the dome 110 feet above the crossing, this department contains manual and pedal divisions under expression. Ethereal celestes, colorful flutes, orchestral reeds, and brilliant trumpet stops on 15 and 25 inches of pressure are included in its scheme. The acoustically reflective dome imparts a distinctive quality to these voices.
The west gallery divisions were replaced by Æolian-Skinner in 1937. With the gathering interest of the time in the performances of baroque music, the new gallery Great, Swell, and Pedal (along with a six-stop Positiv, removed in 1953) were designed to provide proper resources for the playing of contrapuntal music. The specification and finishing of the new west gallery organ was under the direction of G. Donald Harrison, an ex- director of the Willis organbuilding firm in London who joined the Skinner Organ Company in 1927.
The chancel divisions were revised by Æolian-Skinner in 1953 and a small new Positiv division was added in the chancel. At that time a new five-manual drawknob console was installed in the south chancel bay.
The last major rebuilding of the organ took place in 1970 and 1971. New chests, structure and many new pipes were made for the chancel divisions. The Gallery and Celestial organs were cleaned and releathered, and the entire instrument was tonally finished by Donald M. Gillett of Æolian-Skinner. This was the final project completed by the company, which ceased operations in 1972. The Organ now comprises 168 stops, 225 ranks and 12,422 pipes and is tonally unchanged since 1971.
During the Spring of 2006, a new, movable five-manual and pedal console was installed. Custom built by Harris Organs, Inc. of Whittier, California and designed to harmonize visually with St. Bartholomew’s chancel furnishings, the new console incorporates many stylistic and dimensional elements common to consoles built by Æolian-Skinner, while taking advantage of developments in electronic technology to offer organists vastly greater flexibility in controlling the tonal resources of this massive musical instrument. With its cabinetry of fumed solid quarter-sawn white oak and polished mahogany, the new console is a fitting addition to the architecture of the church. The console has been given in memory of Robert Brimberg.
After an exemplary tenure for more than 30 years, Douglass Hunt retired as Curator of the Organs in 2014. The staff of Foley~Baker, Inc. from Tolland, CT succeeded Mr. Hunt. Under their watch, several projects have been initiated. The organ blowers, which supply air to the various locations of the organ, have been moved to a specially designed, climate controlled room in the basement, ensuring that the organ will receive the cleanest air possible at an optimum temperature and humidity level. The chapel organ, damaged as a result of a fire in 2006, was completely restored in July 2015. In conjunction with the restoration of the church’s iconic dome, a complete restoration, including re-leathering and cleaning of the Celestial Organ was undertaken, enabling many dead notes to play again in that division. This was completed in the fall of 2017.
At present, the instrument is not completely playable due to steam damage which occurred in 2004 and 2008. Although, much work has been accomplished to gradually resurrect affected stops, a complete program of restoration will be necessary to return the North Chancel and Gallery divisions to their 1971 completed state. There is much positive discussion within the leadership of the church in making this project a future reality.
St. Bartholomew's organ may be regarded as the final development in the tonal evolution of the American Classic organ, as conceived and built by Æolian-Skinner. In the clear and articulate ensembles throughout the instrument, the skillful inclusion of the romantic voices and orchestral stops in the E. M. Skinner work and with the fine ranks from Hutchings and Odell, the organ stands as a monument which lends itself with ease to the many demands of the program of the church.