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The Skinner Organ at Saint Peter’s Church in Morristown, New Jersey was built in 1930 and was designed and finished by G. Donald Harrison. This is a complete typical, 1930 four-manual Skinner with several subtle differences in design and voicing from the practice of Ernest Skinner. This instrument is characterized by a comprehensive tonal pallet of gentle, beguiling and varied foundation tones, powerful and harmonically rich reeds, and a clean bright diapason chorus.

Under the supervision of Richard Morgan, then-Organist and Choirmaster, Saint Peter’s Church has employed the A. Thompson-Allen Company since 1978 in the care of restoration of the Saint Peter’s Skinner. Mr. Morgan was familiar with the high standards Thompson-Allen kept and their experience and specialization in the care and rebuilding of distinguished electro-pneumatic like the one in his new church. 

The organ console with its electro-pneumatic combination system was rebuilt in 1980 along with rebushing of the keys, repair and regulation of the tracker touch, rebuilding of the switch machinery, and the console bellows regulator. In 1993 funds became available to restore the rest of the organ. Being almost entirely unaltered, the organ was a prefect candidate for full restoration as only two significant changes had been made. In some of the flute registers, Aeolian-Skinner had replaced the original wooden stoppers with metal canisters; these were retained. One change to the organ’s electrical system was reversed.

An important objective in restoring any pipe organ is to simply and promote its future care. At Saint Peter’s, cleanliness was a principal goal. Sixty years of dirt had built up in the chamber; removing major elements of the organ facilitated cleaning of the brick walls. The walls were then sealed, and the floors of the chambers varnished. The clean surfaces also help to reflect tone. Additionally, the chambers received additional lighting and electrical outlets, making maintenance and tuning more pleasant and efficient.

The organ was taken back to the A. Thompson-Allen Co.’s New Haven shops one third at a time, always leaving the majority of the organ in use, over a period of 18 months. All of the mechanism and bellows were re-leathered; chests re-gasketed and re-assembled. The pipework was washed, repaired, refinished and fitted with new tuners. Very special care was taken not to change the original voicing. All the reed stops were sent to an expert reed voicer to have the tuners repaired and the pipes cleaned, refinished and the voicing checked over. All of the original reed tongues were retained where possible. After the pipe work had all been restored and put back in the organ it was tuned and carefully regulated.

A new generation has come to respect the Skinner Company and its work. After years of neglect, destruction, disfigurement and ridicule, instruments in this aesthetic have come back into fashion again. Restoration, and not rebuilding, is the outcome of a welcome cultural phenomenon: growing respect for all styles of organbuilding, rather than a desire to transform an instrument into something it was never meant to be. With the Saint Peter’s Skinner restored, a monument to G. Donald Harrison remains almost exactly as it was built some seventy years ago. Hopefully Saint Peter’s Church will continue to maintain, both tonally and technologically, this irreplaceable work of art.

Notes by Jonathan Ambrosino