Aeolian-Skinner Op. 1343 – 1961 – Cathedral of St. John the Evangelist

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The George Frederick Jewett Memorial Organ was designed, built and installed by the Aeolian-Skinner Organ Company in 1960. The dedication concert was performed by Mr. Myron McTavish, Cathedral organist and Choir Director, in 1961. It consists of 4095 Pipes in five divisions encompassing 72 stops. It has a large number of capture pistons which enable the instrument to memorize numerous settings so that the organist can play an entire concert without having to interrupt and change settings.

The Choir division is located in the organ chamber just off the north transept. This area also houses the Pedal division. The large 32-foot rank pipes, made of redwood, lie flat in the chamber off the north transept. The Swell and Great organs are located in the organ gallery just south of the chancel and off the South transept. The Gallery division is located in the West end of the Nave under the rose window. All these divisions are played from the console just to the east of the pulpit, where the organist can see and direct the choir.

There is a large blower located underneath the console, which can provide large volumes of air under low pressure. The gallery organ has a blower of its own. In contrast to some of the theater organs created this century, the air pressure is low at about 2 to 4 atmospheres of pressure. The trumpets in the gallery have 8 atmospheres pressure.

In 1959, Aeolian-Skinner was approached to build an organ for St. John’s here in Spokane. Dean Coombs had experienced the building of a smaller instrument at Salinas, California. Joseph Whiteford was then President of the company, Donald Harrison having died. Whiteford came here, clapped his hands while standing in the Nave, then cupped his hands and again brought them together, and listened. “I will build you a great instrument” were his words.

The design was worked out with Mr. Whiteford, Myron McTavish, Dean Coombs, the architect and the donors. The instrument was carefully built under Whiteford’s supervision, but when being shipped out almost was lost. There were two semi’s with trailors – one jackknifed, but the organ was not damaged. After installation, Mr. Whiteford spent three months very, very carefully voicing the organ. But, it is said he purposefully voiced it 20% under its maximum output – “Great art needs to leave something to the imagination”. Rumors abounded that it was “detuned” after its installation because of objections to its volume, but Mr. McTavish is adamant that the organ was built as designed and was not in any way modified after installation.

Keen ears will note that when the organ plays, it is the building itself that plays. Often, it is impossible or difficult to locate the source of the sound, and this is as it should be for a fine instrument.

After installation, Eugene Ormandy of the Philadelphia Orchestra came and stayed a week and played the instrument, immediately asking for (and getting) a copy for the Philadelphia Academy of music. A copy exists in the Kennedy Pavilion in Wash. D. C., and one was probably in the Avery Fischer Hall in Lincoln Center – that one, however, apparently succumbed to the Halls three acoustical renovations. Our organ is Opus No. 1343. A few organs were built by the company after 1960, but the company was a commercial failure because of the cost of metals and proper wood and the exquisite care in building and voicing the instruments, and after Mr. Whiteford’s death, it closed. Consequently, our organ is irreplaceable – the materials and the skill are not available today, but with good maintenance, should last hundreds of years.