Culture Couch Pulls Out All The Stops On The Dayton Art Institute Skinner Organ

Jun 12, 2019

One of the most interesting works at the Dayton Art Institute is a musical instrument: a pipe organ that was constructed in the Rose Auditorium 90 years ago.

It was built by Ernest M. Skinner, one of the most renowned organ makers of the early Twentieth Century.

The restoration process took years, and DAI has been celebrating by offering free concerts on select Thursday afternoons.

Terry Donat gave the most recent organ performance at the Dayton Art Institute. He pulled out all the stops and showed the crowd all the different types of instruments a Skinner organ can accurately imitate.
Credit Jason Reynolds / WYSO

Organist Terry Donat likes to play Bach’s “Cathedral” on the Skinner Pipe Organ. If you ever have access to a rare symphonic pipe organ, he says that’s the kind of piece you’d want to play.

During a recent Thursday afternoon concert at DAI, Donat explains why this organ is so special. It has all the bells and whistles, literally, and it makes the sounds of dozens of different instruments, from flute to tuba to chimes to the human voice, or vox humana.

To make a specific sound, the organist pulls out a little handle called a stop. There are a lot of them on the face of the organ. And if you pull out all the stops, it should sound like a symphony.

The Rise and Fall (and Restoration) of Skinner Symphonic Organs

The roaring twenties were a good time to be America’s best organ maker. There were museums, colleges, churches, and cathedrals going up all over the country, and almost all of them wanted a symphonic organ.

“It was thee thing to do at the time,” says Matt Dierking, who organizes the organ concerts at the Art Institute. “And Skinner was thee organ builder.” 

It wasn’t just big, public buildings. No self-respecting American mogol would build a mansion without a Skinner organ. Steel baron Andrew Carnegie had one, and he hired an organist to come over very early in the morning, so the organ could be his alarm clock.

Charles Kettering and Edward Deeds had Skinner organs installed in their homes, too. Deeds was such a big fan of the Skinner sound and status symbol, that he had one installed in his yacht.

Matt Dierking oftens performs on the organ at DAI, and he says it makes everything sound good, from fifteenth century fugues to Walt Disney. He also likes to play songs from Monty Python on the organ.

But a century after Skinner’s heyday, there aren’t all that many of his symphonic organs in full working order. There are famous ones that have been kept up--organs at Rockefeller Memorial Chapel, Woolsey Hall at Yale, and the Chapel at Princeton--but others have gone by the wayside instead or being restored, because restoring one is such a big task. And if the pipes are replaced or altered, the organ may lose its “Skinner sound.”

Dierking says restorating the DAI organ to its original form took almost three years. Backstage in the Rose Auditorium, he climbs up a ladder into the big box when the pipes are.

“It was really bad,” he says. “There are about 1,400 pipes in this instrument. All of them had to be taken out and cleaned. A good portion of them had to be repaired. Maybe a third of the pipes in the organ had rotted out so bad, it was impossible to play it.” 

There are roughly 1,400 pipes in the Skinner Organ at the Dayton Art Institute. Culture Couch did not count them all.
Credit Jason Reynolds / WYSO

Here, it’s notable that keys on a keyboard instrument don’t make the sound. When you hit a key on a piano, it presses a lever and a soft hammer strikes strings inside the soundboard. An organ is similar, but instead of strings, it’s pipes that make the noise.

“An organ is essentially a lot of whistles put together,” Dierking says. “Half of them are called flu pipes; they are literally whistles. The other ones have a reed in them, where it sounds like a clarinet.”

The wind going through the pipes is created by bellows.

Hundreds of years ago in European churches, choir boys would pump the bellows to keep the air flowing, and early mechanized units were loud. But Skinner’s organs run surprisingly quiet. He also invented organ parts, created standard sizes for those parts, and innovated the way electric currents are used to pump the bellows and open and close the valves on pipes.

All of this should have made him a financial force in the music business.

“He was a great person for organ building and the science,” Dierking says. “He had lots of patents on organs, but he was a horrible business guy. He kind of went in and out of business.”

Skinner’s company was eventually merged with a different company, which was called Aeiolo-Skinner. It was a good partnership for some time, but Skinner parted ways with that company. Interestingly, the company would windup putting him back on their payroll so they could use his name on organs he didn’t build. It was good for sales.

Museum Director and CEO Michael Roediger is quick to note that the organ has been around since the Rose Auditorium opened. It’s played weddings and anniversaries, graduations and recitals, and countless other events. The museum wants to keep it going.

“There’s a lot of young people who don’t even know this type of instrument exists,” he says. “Because there aren’t many of them left. And so we’re really excited that we have one. When you’re walking through [the museum], and you hear this beautiful sound, you’re like, ‘What is that?’ ‘Where is that?’”

Some museum-goers, like Patricia Tillou, are drawn in by the organ music.

“I was walking along, and I heard the organ on my way to the exhibit,” she says. “And I thought, ‘Oh, my gosh! Is it really today, too? I hit the jackpot!’ I love to hear and listen to organ music. It just fills my whole body.”

The days of building big, booming, symphonic pipe organs may be gone, but as the Skinner organ in the Rose Auditorium approaches its centennial, that just gives the Dayton Art Institute all the more reason to celebrate having one.

The next Skinner Organ concerts at DAI are Thursday June 13 and Thursday June 27. Both events start at 1PM. For more information, visit http://www.daytonartinstitute.org/ 

Culture Couch is made possible by a generous grant from the Ohio Arts Council.