The Duke University Chapel Aeolian

By Foley, Michael E. | The American Organist, January 2012 | Go to article overview
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The Duke University Chapel Aeolian


Foley, Michael E., The American Organist


AEOLIAN Ol'US 1785 for Duke Chapel, completed in 1932, represents one ofthat firm's finest instruments and one of our largest restoration projects. As Aeolian's last and largest endeavor into the liturgical field, Opus 1785 featured not only thousands of pipes but also some of the largest-scaled ever to leave their factory in Garwood, New Jersey. More than its pipes and mechanism, however, as the last large Aeolian, the Duke organ sums up the company's approach to heroic organbuilding, which is a far cry from the genteel refinement of their residence work. For those unacquainted with large symphonic organs built by firms other than Skinner, the Aeolian approach is a revelation in terms of boldness and result.

Aeolian started building player reed organs for homes in 1878. Thanks to an arrangement with the Detroit organbuilder Farrand & Votey, Aeolian was able to introduce the self-player mechanism to the pipe organ and market it as a deluxe home musical instrument. At the time, America's incredible industrial growth was creating new millionaires by the dozen. Many were building trophy mansions and music rooms; thanks to Aeolian's paper-roll player, their organs soon became must-have items. By 1903, die talents and patents of the two firms were combined, building hundreds of organs under the Aeolian name.

Aeolian's organ division wasn't just about residence instruments; indeed, by the late 1920s, they had built any number of organs for churches and schools. However, the company so dominated the residence market that perhaps they felt immune from the highly competitive church market. The minor crash of 1927, and the major one of 1929, tremendously curtailed construction activity. This quickly came to include organequipped homes as well. One of the few large and active construction projects in America at the time was Duke University's new west campus, then the largest construction project in the history of the South. The chapel's architect was Horace Trumbauer of Philadelphia, whose firm was best known for lavish homes built between 1890 and 1930. The new Duke campus would include a tremendous chapel, which would naturally house a sizable organ. With its elegant proportions and sense of grandeur and calm, Duke Chapel does credit to the Trumbauer firm's abilities, particularly to chief designer Julian Abele, who adroitly provided space for four magnificent organ screens built by Irving and Casson of Boston.

It was only fitting that the finest university in the South should have the caliber of organ known at other Ivy League schools. At the time, the builder of such instruments was acknowledged to be the Skinner Organ Company of Boston. Many elements of Duke Chapel were modeled on Ralph Adams Cram's chapel for Princeton University; thus, Aeolian's sales staff put together the identical specification Skinner had built for Princeton, with one minor exception (an added 8' Gemshorn), and presented it to the Dukes - folklore suggests this sales pitch occurred during a transatlantic cruise! Whatever the method, in October 1930, Aeolian secured the contract to build the Duke organ, a significant assignment by any standard and their second largest after the 146-rank organ for Pierre S. du Pont at Longwood.

By the time construction began on Opus 1785, it was obvious that a few prestigious contracts and a trickle of other jobs could not sustain a giant workforce and factory. As the Duke organ took shape during 1931, a feeling of discomfort surely permeated the factory. Rumors were that the company was for sale and, of all things, Skinner was courting. Arthur Hudson Marks, president of the Skinner company, sent assurances that all workers would be offered jobs, but by December 14, 1931, along with the passing of papers came the announcement that, exceptfor a select few, all employees were officially terminated. Thus did Aeolian become Aeolian-Skinner, and, save for a few executives and factory workers, Aeolian's Organ Division ceased to exist.

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