East Liberty Presbyterian Church Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania Goulding & Wood Inc

The American Organist, December 2007 | Go to article overview

East Liberty Presbyterian Church Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania Goulding & Wood Inc


From the Builder

East Liberty Presbyterian Church is a monumental structure defining its northeast Pittsburgh neighborhood. The building, designed by Ralph Adams Cram and built in the middle of the Great Depression, evokes a sense of grandeur and pride hi civic works that were hallmarks of the era. Funding for the new church, including the acquisition of Aeolian-Skinner Opus 884, came from Richard Beatty Mellon, brother of Andrew Mellon, as a memorial to his parents.

Opus 884 was the last major instrument built during Ernest Skinner's tenure, and the stoplist shows an uneasy coexistence of influences from Skinner and his younger cohort, G. Donald Harrison. For a variety of reasons, many of them lost to history, the organ failed to attract the positive attention befitting a project of this magnitude, and the instrument lived a life of quiet service to the congregation and otherwise humble obscurity.

In the 1970s, the church embarked on a series of projects with dual intents of addressing some age-related concerns and bringing the instrument closer to the tonal spectrum Fashionable at the time. Building on the incipient chorus structure implied by Harrison's influence on the stoplist, an attempt was made to impart a greater Orgelbewegung character. Naturally, the work done at this time focused on the diapason-family ranks, often cleaning languids of their nicks and altering cutups.

By the last decade of the 20th century, the congregation recognized that the organ once again required-and deserved-attention. Under the patient and wise leadership of the Rev. Dr. J. Richard Szeremany, director of music and the arts, the church began an odyssey to improve the musical resources of the sanctuary. After first collecting detailed reports on the room and the organ, they embarked on an extensive project sealing the Guastavino tile to improve the poor acoustics. Jack Bethards, president and tonal director of Schoenstein & Co. Organhuilders, produced an exhaustive assessment of the organ, delineating condition, deficiencies, and possible improvements. His report served as an essential guide throughout the organ project. With the research and acoustical improvements complete, Dr. Szeremany began interviewing firms. Upon first investigating the instrument, our nrm recognized the daunting scope of work needed. Dr. Szeremany's confidence in us and his gentle persuasion served to win us over to this extremely exciting but nearly overwhelming, task.

Working in a very close dialogue with Dr. Szeremany as the organist of the project, Mr. Bethards as consultant, and Robert Schopp as pipebuilder, we concluded that the sumptuous, symphonic quality of the original design demanded utmost respect for its integrity and musicality. We had no desire to out-think Skinner or impress our own thumbprint on the instrument. Ultimately, we reached every decision within the context of achieving a successful example of Aeolian-Skinner's best work from the 1930s, altering their work only when we could point to other work done by them as a guide.

Our first area of concern was the physical layout of the organ. Consistent with Ernest Skinner's thinking, the organ used only the tone openings in the chancel, leaving the equally large openings facing the nave (by way oi the transepts) walled shut. The effect, in the words of Mr. Bethards, was that the organ was more than chambered but actually entombed." Where divisions were double stacked, we positioned all pipework of a single division on a single level. The Great reed sub-division, a chorus of independent 16', 8', and 4' trombas with five-rank Harmonics mixture, was originally placed in a box nestled up close to the ceiling in a corner of the chamber facing away from the nave. We moved this division to the opposite corner of the chamber, where it speaks freely into both chancel and transept openings and crowns the Great with a suitably commanding presence.

Since the 1970s revision led to the irreparable alteration of most ranks in the principal choruses, the restoration of a convincing 1935 diapason chorus was the biggest challenge. …

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