Ernest M. Skinner
Skinner began his lifelong career at the Taunton, Massachusetts shop of George Ryder in 1886. After four years' employment in the Ryder shop, Skinner went to work for the Boston based firm owned by George Hutchings, first as a tuner, then rising to the post as Factory Superintendent during his twelve years with that firm. The 1897 Hutchings organ at The Basilica and Shrine of Our Lady of Perpetual Help, commonly known as The Mission Church, in Boston drew national attention and acclaim for Hutchings, although George Hutchings failed to mention his young factory superintendent (Skinner) by name.
Skinner made the first of two very public trips to England, crossing the Atlantic on a cattle steamer in 1898. Skinner was exposed to the work of "Father" Henry Willis, the celebrated London builder whose high-pressure chorus reeds and Tuba stops were to set the benchmark for much of the 20th century. Skinner was given free access to the large Willis organ at St. George’s Hall, Liverpool and was able to meet privately with "Father" Willis who tutored the young Skinner in voicing practices and techniques not yet known in the United States. Skinner then crossed the English Channel to visit France where he met Louis Vierne, the famed blind organist at Notre-Dame in Paris. Upon his return to Boston, Skinner made his first Pedal Trombone modeled after the work of "Father" Willis for the 1900 Hutchings organ installed at Boston Music Hall. The first documented instance of the pitman windchest, as developed by Skinner, appeared in the 1899 Hutchings-Votey organ installed at the Flatbush Dutch Reformed Church in Brooklyn, New York, although other sources mention origins in Hutchings organs as early as 1893.
Ernest M. Skinner & Company
Skinner left the Hutchings-Votey shop and entered into a partnership with another former Hutchings-Votey employee to form the Skinner & Cole Company in 1902. By 1904 the Skinner & Cole partnership had dissolved and Ernest M. Skinner & Company purchased the contract for The Evangelical Lutheran Church of the Holy Trinity in New York City (Opus 113, 1904) from the former company for $1.
By 1912 Ernest M. Skinner & Company had refined the pitman windchest to a state of simple elegance. (A "Wind Chest" is the large box, normally built of wood, upon which the sound producing pipes are "planted," and which contains the valves and mechanisms which control the wind supply to the pipes) pitman chests allow the air to be held pressurized under the pipes at all times, eliminating noise and other problems of ventil chests that apply wind only when a stop is drawn, and resulting in a far more responsive instrument.
Virtually all major builders of electro-pneumatic action organs, including M. P. Möller, W. W. Kimball (both firms now defunct), Schantz, and Reuter use some form of the pitman windchest to this day, although most have only recently begun to credit Skinner with the design and subsequent refinements that make it an industry benchmark.
Skinner was also one of the first to try to establish a systematic method for providing fixed dimensions in his organ consoles — a series of set distances between the various keyboards, placement of the pedal board at a specific distance from the Great manual as well as the placement of the various expression shoes and other mechanical devices that have significantly contributed to the "Standard" American Guild of Organists (AGO) Console Measurements in use in the United States since 1930. prior to this, each organ builder might use different dimensions on their consoles, causing organists many problems with adapting to different layouts and positions of keyboards and pedalboards.
In addition to his development and refinement of the pitman windchest, Skinner also developed and perfected the Whiffletree Shade Motor — a mechanical device that moves the expression shades from the open to closed position in a smooth, fluid motion without the "slam" that often accompanies mechanical shade traces.
Skinner consoles had fully adjustable combination pistons (another mechanical device that visibly moves the stopknobs to any combination pre-set by the organist) decades before other American firms adopted similar devices as standard.
In short, the craftspeople of the Ernest M. Skinner Company, under the guidance of Mr. Skinner, used the best materials available, combined with the highest levels of artistic skill and technical craftsmanship, to develop a "Musical Machine" which could be played by a single musician, and which was capable of filling the largest Cathedral with anything from an angelic whisper, to an awe-inspiring thunder of sound, and which was as easy to play as a piano.
Mr. Skinner must also be credited with the development and perfection of the remarkable "Actions" used to control the mechanical operation of these instruments. These huge and highly sophisticated fore-runners of modern computers were built of wood, leather, and metal organ parts, and used low-voltage DC Current and low pressure pressurized air ("wind") to control and direct the thousands of switching and control commands which are constantly sent to all parts of the instrument when it is being played.
These actions allowed the pipework of the instrument to be located in any part of a building, while the console could be located hundreds of feet away, and allowing a single organist to have exacting and precise control over every aspect of these massively complex musical instruments.
A large Skinner organ and its Action will contain tens of thousands of precision moving parts and mechanisms, many miles of wiring, and represented the pinnacle of craftsmanship, engineering, and ingenuity for their era.
Skinner also developed and perfected automatic "Player" mechanisms of extraordinary complexity and stunning ingenuity, which allowed almost any individual to operate a large pipe organ in a manner similar to a player piano. The Toledo Museum of Art contains a fully restored Skinner instrument, which contains a Skinner Player action. http://www.thompson-allen.com/toledo.html
In 1916, Skinner created and patented the "Orchestrator." This player mechanism was one of the very earliest "computers" ever built by man to use binary switching logic.
The desire to bring the organ under the complete and easy control of the organist was coupled with Skinner's lifelong interest and obsession with "orchestral" tonal colors and their application to the pipe organ. The first of his new stops, the Erzähler, appeared in 1904, and was soon joined by other exotic tonal colors which Skinner worked to perfect between 1908 and 1924 including an Orchestral Oboe," English Horn, Corno di Bassetto, Flügel Horn and Heckelphone that were all very true to their orchestral counterparts. In addition to his orchestral color reeds, Skinner also developed and perfected numerous string and hybrid flue stops, many with matching celestes of uncommon beauty. Among these were the usual Salicional/Voix Celeste and Dulciana/Unda Maris present in the Swell and Choir divisions of many American organs of the era but also his ethereal Flauto Dolce/Flute Celeste, his Dulcet (a pair of very narrow scaled string ranks tuned with a fast beat to heighten the intensity), a pair of inverted-flare Gambas found in the Solo divisions of many of his larger organs that allowed a rich, 'cello-like timbre for solo lines in the Tenor range, the Kleine Erzähler, a softer, brighter version of his earlier Erzähler, (which creates the effect of string players playing very softly) as well as his Pedal Violone's at 32' and 16' pitches which he defined as "subtle, soft string stops." Yet with all these developments, Skinner is still best known for his highly imitative French Horn stop, which is his only sonic creation that he actually patented.
During the first decade of existence, Ernest M. Skinner & Company developed a national reputation, building large organs for some of the most prestigious churches, concert halls, colleges, and auditoriums in the country, including The Cathedral of St. John the Divine (op. 150, 1906); Sage Chapel at Cornell University (op. 175, 1909); Carnegie Music Hall, Pittsburgh (op. 180, 1910); Appleton Chapel, Harvard (op. 197, 1912); St. Thomas Episcopal Church, New York, New York (op. 205, 1913); Finney Chapel, Oberlin College (op. 230, 1914) and the Brick Presbyterian Church, New York (op. 280, 1917).
While Skinner was a true artistic and mechanical engineering genius, his business management skills were notoriously poor. In 1919, the Ernest M. Skinner & Company was reorganized with Arthur H. Marks (who had amassed a fortune as the former General Manager and Vice-President of the Goodrich Rubber Company) as the President and Skinner as Vice-President of the newly organized Skinner Organ Company. This allowed Skinner to focus on the technical and artistic aspects of the dozens of projects in which the company was involved at any one time, while others would manage the commercial aspects of the company. In 1924, at the behest of Marks and William Zeuch, another principal at the factory, Skinner made his second trip to England, this time meeting with Henry Willis, III, the grandson of "Father" Henry Willis (Sr.), and spending considerable time in France with Marcel Dupré learning about mutation stops and chorus work of the French Romantic Organ. Skinner returned to the United States with a new love for unison and quint Mixtures and more brilliant upperwork that was standard fare in English organs of the era although it is not clear whether this love sprung from Skinner's exposure to Henry Willis, III or Skinner's exposure to organs built by Harrison and Harrison, the English organ-building firm who had taken center-stage in the Edwardian era.
By 1927, friction in the Skinner Company had begun to build between Marks and Skinner. This was further exacerbated when a young Englishman George Donald Harrison joined the Skinner staff as Assistant General Manager in 1927, at the behest of Willis III and Marks. Early collaborations between the elder Skinner and the younger Harrison resulted in four "Landmark Organs" in the late 1920s — the first built in 1928 for The University of Michigan at Ann Arbor then two additional large organs for the Chapel at Princeton, then another in Rockefeller Memorial Chapel at the University of Chicago. The final was the organ, the Newberry Memorial Organ, located in Woolsey Hall at Yale University, which was a rebuild of an existing instrument and remains one of the most renowned Romantic organs in the world. http://www.yale.edu/ism/organ_atyale/Newberry.html
By the end of 1929, Skinner, who was then 63 years old) had become aware that it was Marks' intention that the younger Harrison was not intended as a protégé for the elder Skinner, but was rather meant to be his replacement.
With the onset of the Great Depression, orders for pipe organs fell tremendously. The Skinner company was forced to layoff workers and scale back production very significantly, throwing additional stress onto the management of the company.
The world of the organ, as created by Skinner over the previous 30 years, had also begun to significantly change. By 1931, the "orchestral" style of pipe organ was falling from favor among organists, who were looking for a more "Classical" organ sound. Harrison, who had been working on the development of this new tonal direction for the company, was becoming more frequently requested as the designer and finisher of the limited number of available projects, while Skinner found himself being requested less. Some organists did maintain their loyalty to Skinner personally, and requested him personally, but again this served to exacerbated the tensions within the company.
The 1932 merger of the Aeolian Organ Company with the Skinner Company, and the resulting change of the company name to "Aeolian-Skinner," also resulted in increasing tension between Skinner, Harrison, and Marks, as Skinner saw his technical and artistic influence at the company, which was the part of the business which he had historically personally managed, beginning to be significantly diminished by the ascension of Harrison.
On July 14, 1933, Skinner was formally stripped of his power by the Board of Directors of the Aeolian-Skinner Company, following his attempt to influence the terms of the contract for the organ at Grace Cathedral in San Francisco, CA.
The final instrument which was personally designed and finished by Skinner is the Organ of the Chapel of Girard College, in Philadelphia, PA (Opus 872 - 1933)
To this day it stands as a testament to the genius of Ernest Skinner. Installed in a huge chamber, which is located 100' above the floor of the 2000+ seat chapel, and in a stunning acoustical setting, it is one of the most emotionally and musically powerful pipe organs ever built in the United States.
In January 1936, Skinner quietly sold his interest in The Skinner Organ Company to purchase the property now known as Methuen Memorial Music Hall, including the adjacent organ factory. Both had been built by Edward Francis Searles to house and maintain the very large organ which was originally built for the Boston Music Hall in 1863. In the following years Skinner presented public performances of both choral and organ works with featured performers including Marcel Dupré and E. Power Biggs.
It was Skinner's intent to form a new business concern with his son, Richmond Skinner, to be known as Ernest M. Skinner and Son, and to compete with the firm that Skinner had founded and that still bore his name. Marks was able to persuade Skinner (with the help of Skinner's wife, Mabel and his son, Richmond) to enter into a five-year contract with The Skinner Organ Company which provided Skinner with an annual salary of $5,000 in exchange for the continued use of his name, but required that Skinner and his newly purchased interest in the Methuen Organ Company would not compete with Skinner in the construction of new organs but rather "confine his work..." in the Methuen shop "...to the rebuilding of older pipe organs."
In 1936 Skinner was able to form Ernest M. Skinner and Son and produced one final, spectacular organ for Washington National Cathedral that opened in the fall of 1938 to wide national acclaim. Financial troubles forced the company to file for bankruptcy on October 1, 1941, then fire burned the Methuen Shop to the ground on June 17, 1943.
Skinner was a prolific writer with numerous letters to the editors of The Diapason and The American Organist appearing in those publications from the 1940s onward wherein he defended his tonal ideals and made an attempt to regain lost territory on the American musical landscape. From the 1940s onward, Skinner saw many of his best organs rebuilt beyond recognition while others were thrown out wholesale in the name of musical progress. Even the three "Landmark Organs" mentioned in the previous section were subject to this trend with modifications to the Chicago organ being carried out only a few years after its completion.
Following the death of his wife Mabel in 1951, he entered a downward spiral from which he never recovered. The tonal revision of his earlier organs at St. John the Divine, NYC (op. 150, 1911), St. Thomas, NYC (op. 205, 1913) and his final large organ built for the National Cathedral all fell subject to this trend by the mid-'50s, further complicating his emotional state as he saw his life's work (and by extension, himself) gradually going extinct.
The final years of Mr. Skinner's life found him living in relative obscurity, having far outlived most of his contemporaries.
He passed during the night of November 26–27, 1960, at the age of 94, at the family home.
He is buried in Bethel, Maine.
- The Life and Work of Ernest M. Skinner — Dorothy Holden published by The Organ Historical Society, 1985
- Stop, Open and Reed published by The Organ Historical Society, 1997
- All the Stops: The Glorious Pipe Organ and Its American Masters — Craig R. Whitney published by PublicAffairs a member of the Perseus Books Group
- The American Classic Organ: A History in Letters — Charles Callahan published by The Organ Historical Society, 1990
- The Modern Organ-- Ernest M. Skinner published by the H.W. Gray Co., 1917
Noteworthy E.M. Skinner organs today
- Cleveland Public Auditorium, Cleveland, OH. 1922 Opus 328.
- Trinity Cathedral (Episcopal). Cleveland, OH. 1907.
- All Souls Chapel, Poland Spring, ME. 1926 Skinner Opus 564.
- Hollywood High School Opus 481-A
- Saint Ann & the Holy Trinity Opus 524, Brooklyn, NY
- Columbia High School, Maplewood, New Jersey Opus 637
- Saint Luke's Episcopal Church, Evanston, Ill.
- Saint Peter's Episcopal Church, Philadelphia, Pa.
-  Grand Avenue Temple United Methodist Church, Kansas City, Mo., Opus 190
- Girard College, Philadelphia, chapel (large early Aeolian-Skinner closely supervised by E.M. Skinner)
- Severance Hall, Cleveland, Ohio op. 816
- Harvard Divinity School, inside the Andover Chapel, Cambridge, MA, 1911
- Immanuel Presbyterian Church, Los Angeles, CA (1927 Opus 676, 4Manual/62Ranks)
- Brown Memorial Presbyterian Church, Baltimore, Maryland, Opus 839
- Rosary Cathedral (Toledo, Ohio)
- Toledo Museum of Art 1926 Opus 603, at The Peristyle (a concert hall in the museum's east wing)
- Trinity Lutheran Church, Astoria, NY (Queens)
- Stambaugh Auditorium, Youngstown, OH
- Cincinnati Museum Center at Union Terminal, OH
- St. Paul's Episcopal Church, Winston-Salem, NC
- St. Peter's Episcopal Church, Morristown, NJ Opus 836 1930 4/63
- First Congregation United Church of Christ, Benton Harbor, MI
- Dayton Art Institute, Dayton, OH
- Old South Church, Boston, MA (1921 Opus 308, 4 Manual/115 ranks)
- Damascus United Methodist Church, Damascus, MD, Renovation planned, fundraisng underway
- St. James Episcopal Church (New London, Connecticut)
- St. Mark's Lutheran Church - Faith Center, Marion, Iowa, 1928 Opus 695
- Trinity United Methodist Church, Durham, NC 1924, Opus 416
- Legion of Honor, San Francisco, CA 1924 http://legionofhonor.famsf.org/about/skinner-organ
- Missouri United Methodist Church, Columbia Missouri Opus 750 http://www.moumc.org/organ
Washington Street UMC. 1401 Washington Street Columbia, SC 29201 Photos of 2008 restoration http://picasaweb.google.com/WSUMC1401/EMSkinnerPipeOrgan#
- A Complete Listing of Skinner Organs, including Stop-lists, Photographs, and Comments
- Recent Restoration of Op. 732 at Hope College, Holland, MI
- Skinner Restoration Specialists: Thompson-Allen Company
- Broome & Co. LLC, Reed Voicers Specializing in Skinner Restorations
- A Skinner Organ restoration project in New Jersey