Newberry Memorial Organ Restoration

March 6, 2014

by Joe Dzeda

Photos (c) David Ottenstein

In the late 1920s, the Skinner Organ Company, America’s premier organ-building firm, constructed three epoch-making instruments for the universities at Princeton, Ann Arbor, and Chicago.  These organs gained immediate acclaim for their forward-looking design, and they quickly became iconic in the rarefied atmosphere of organ-building.  Their musical qualities inspired a generation of composers and organists, setting the standard for the art of building organs in this country.


Not to be outdone, Yale University Organist Harry Benjamin Jepson invited the Skinner Company to rebuild and enlarge the great Newberry Memorial Organ in Woolsey Hall, an instrument that traced its beginnings to the Hall’s dedication in 1903.  When the rebuilding was completed and the organ dedicated in December 1929, it became the largest organ ever to bear the Skinner nameplate.  Its more than 12,500 pipes shook the Hall’s foundations, thrilling audiences with its massive, heroic ensembles and heart-stopping ethereal effects.


Surprisingly, even the staid world of organ-building is subject to the whims of fashion.  The three original “University Skinners” sadly fell prey to changing tastes in organ design.  The Yale organ, however, remained exactly as it was finished, as much for a lack of funds to alter it, as for its outstanding musical qualities.  Cinderella-like, it was left standing after its famous sister instruments were altered beyond anything their builder would be able to recognize.    


Pendulums notably swing in two directions, and in the past several decades the Newberry Organ once again has emerged as one of the important monuments of its era.  Today it attracts the attention of a new generation of admirers.  It is seen not as a curiosity of a time long-gone, but as a superb vehicle for the rendition of organ music from the nineteenth century onwards. 


Aubrey Thompson-Allen, Yale’s curator of organs from 1952 until his retirement in 1973, quickly identified the Newberry Organ as worthy of preservation at all costs.  Working at first with a very limited budget, he began to address the aging instrument’s increasing ailments, beginning with the most urgent repairs, in an effort to keep the organ playable.  Encouraged by Yale University Organist Prof. Charles R. Krigbaum, Thompson-Allen was able to set into motion a program for the piecemeal rebuilding of the instrument’s mechanism.  As inefficient as such a program necessarily must be, it permitted the Newberry Organ to escape the fate of so many of its contemporary instruments.    


This program of specific and limited rebuilding was continued and expanded by Thompson-Allen’s successors, Nick Thompson-Allen (his son) and me (his former assistant).  With the cooperation of Professors Thomas Murray and Martin Jean, each summer the organ was shut down for crucial repairs that enabled it to stand up to the heavy use (up to 50 hours per week) that it receives during the academic year.  While this plan permitted the organ to carry on, a side effect was that there was always some project needing to be done.  Like painting the Golden Gate Bridge, crossing the finish line meant starting all over again.   

  • Woolsey organ bass pipes in shop
    Pipes of the 8-foot Geigen Diapason await cleaning and repair in the shop. This is the first time these pipes have been out of the organ since they were installed in 1903.
  • Woolsey organ overall swell view
    Swell Organ with façade grillwork. The two “perches” that straddle the two windchests permit the organ curators to reach every pipe for tuning.
  • Woolsey organ packing pipes
    Associate organ curator Nicholas Thompson-Allen prepares delicate pipes for transport in special blankets and wooden crates.
  • Woolsey organ pre-restoration pipes
    Pipework pre-resoration. L to r: 16’ Posaune, 4’ Clarion, 4’ Flute Triangulaire, 8’ Rohrflöte, 8’ Quintadena
  • Woolsey organ wall damage
    Water damage is visible on the masonry of the chamber walls. No one has passed through the door (upper right) since 1915 when storm windows were installed over it.
  • Woolsey organ Vox Humana pipes pre-restoration
    Vox Humana (Human Voice) pipes before restoration. Note the dust on the pipes and their windchest, as well as the water damage to the masonry wall behind the bass pipes in the photo.
  • Woolsey organ Vox Humana restored
    Following restoration the pipes and windchest for the Vox Humana shine like new. The cleaning process has returned the original sheen to the sound of the organ that gradually had been muffled by the accumulation of dust.
  • Woolsey organ pedal mixture
    The Pedal Organ’s “mixture” pipework was a rarity in 1928. These pipes sound various pitches of the natural harmonic series, adding a special tint to the sound of the Pedal Organ.
  • Woolsey organ swell pipes pre-restoration
    Some of the Swell Organ’s more than 2,500 pipes. The Swell Organ alone is larger than many medium-sized church organs.
  • Woolsey organ swell pipes restored
    The pipework of the lower Swell Organ windchest after cleaning and restoration
  • Woolsey organ pipes packed to ship
    These wooden pipes have had three names over the years. Originally installed in the Great Organ in 1903 and called Principal Flute, in the 1915 revision of the organ they were moved to the Swell Organ and renamed Tibia Plena. During the 1928 rebuilding of the organ they were renamed Open Flute and have kept that name ever since.
  • Woolsey organ bass chest
    The largest pipes are installed on special “bass chests” to give them more speaking room and to reduce the size of the main windchests. Here a bass chest is being dismantled for restoration.
  • Woolsey organ bass chest action
    The mechanism, or “action” of a bass chest, made in 1903, receives new valves and white leather diaphragms as part of the restoration process.
  • Woolsey organ pouchrails
    Some of the hundreds of new leather “pouches” and their valves. Internal springs push the disk valves shut against the pipe-holes. When the pouch is deflected under wind-pressure, air flows into the pipes above.
  • Woolsey organ woodwork cleaned
    The woodwork of the windchests is cleaned and refinished using special shellac. Shiny surfaces promote the egress of sound into the Hall.
  • Woolsey organ regulator in shop
    A wind-pressure regulator has been rebuilt with new leather corner gussets and hinges. This regulator is for the pipes of the two Pedal Organ mixture stops. Once installed it will serve for fifty or sixty years before it needs to be rebuilt again.
  • Woolsey organ ped mixture restored
    The two Pedal Organ mixture stops as seen from the expression shades of the Swell Organ chamber. The plaster grillwork in the background permits the sound to enter Woolsey Hall.

Two years ago, however, the Yale Institute of Sacred Music, which provides the financial support for the ongoing maintenance of all sixteen of Yale’s extraordinary collection of pipe organs, embarked upon a new program of restoring the Newberry Organ in a systematic section-by-section approach that is both more practical and efficient than the previous incremental approach.  Three of the instrument’s eight major divisions (String Organ, Choir Organ and Swell Organ) have been fully restored.  The next section (Solo Organ) will be started in the late spring of this year.   


By using the section-by-section method, essential restoration techniques that were simply not possible in the limited time frame of summer repairs are now feasible.  As each section is restored, not only can its mechanism be fully rebuilt, but all of its pipework (some 2,500 pipes in the Swell Organ alone) can be cleaned and regulated.  As the decades of accumulated dust are washed away, each section gains a new degree of clarity and freshness of sound not heard since Prof. Jepson dedicated the organ in 1929. 


Approaching the Newberry’s restoration in this manner virtually guarantees that it will be available in the years to come, ready to take on its full duties as a teaching, concert, and ceremonial instrument.  Such stewardship is not only essential but also laudable, demonstrating the University’s commitment to preserving the Newberry Memorial Organ as a monument to American organ-building.