The organ at Saint Thomas is one of southern California’s premier concert organs. Its sixty-nine ranks of pipes, comprising over 3,800 individual pipes, are configured in the style known as the “American Classic”. This design concept brings together a variety of organ tonal styles into one instrument, the transparent sound of the German baroque, the colorful inflections of the French classic, and the majestic sounds of the English tradition. The American style is represented by instrumental sounds such as the orchestral flute, oboe, and clarinet.

This eclectic mix of styles was popularized in the 1940’s and 50’s by the noted Aeolian Skinner Organ Company of Boston and typifies America’s most distinguished organs, such as those in The Cathedral of Saint John the Divine in New York City, Grace Cathedral in San Francisco, the Boston Symphony Hall, and the Salt Lake City Tabernacle.The tonal design of the instrument included alterations to the interior of the church building to improve its acoustical properties. This included the removal of carpeting, resurfacing the walls with a smooth finish, and applying a special lacquer to the ceiling. These modifications helped to create a resonant soundboard for both the organ and for choral music.

The Saint Thomas Organ was built from 1988 to 1990 by master organ builder Weston Harris, of West Hollywood, and Thomas J. McDonough, of Point Fermin. At the core of the organ is the historic Los Angeles Art Organ Company Opus #46. This instrument was built in 1904 for Christ Episcopal Church, located in downtown Los Angeles. The organ is one of the few surviving instruments built by the noted company, known for the organ built for the Louisiana Purchase Exposition of 1904, at the time the largest organ in the world. That instrument eventually became the core of the famous Wanamaker Organ in Philadelphia in 1915. The Church of the Open Door, a downtown Los Angeles landmark, acquired Opus #46 from Christ Episcopal Church and used it for seventy years, until its removal in April of 1985.

Mr. Harris learned about the availability of the organ merely by accident. The instrument had been in storage since 1985 and needed to be sold and removed from the warehouse within a week. Only days later, the organ was purchased and its many thousands of components unloaded at Saint Thomas. With this organ as the core, carefully selected sets of pipes were added to complete the comprehensive tonal design. These pipes came from a variety of historic sources including the organ at Saint Stephen’s Episcopal/Hollywood, Saint Athanasius/Echo Park, Saint Monica’s Catholic Church/Santa Monica, the Memorial Church of Harvard University, and the former organ at Saint Thomas. The original builders of these additional pipes include Murray Harris, Aeolian Skinner, Reuter, Pilcher, Stinkens, Giesecke, Gottfried, Whalley, Moller, Trivo, and Wicks. The console shell was built in 1924 by the Ernest M. Skinner Organ Company for the Memorial Chapel of Stanford University. The set of pipes named “Doppelflote” dates back to the 1890’s.

Organ sounds are created by forced air blowing into different types of pipes. Most pipes are “flue” pipes and operate similarly to the way sound is produced by a policeman’s whistle; no moving parts are involved. The metallic pipes seen mounted on top of the wooden boxes at either side of the altar are flue pipes. “Reed” pipes produce their sound when air passes by a thin brass reed causing it to vibrate and set up vibrations within the pipe. The tall, tapering pipes located in the west transept to the left of the altar are reed pipes as are the trumpet pipes extending out from the rear wall at the back of the church. Variations in pitch and tone are achieved through the shape, size, and materials used in each pipe as well as the amount of air pressure supplied to them. Most of the pipes in the Saint Thomas Organ are constructed of a various mixtures of lead and tin. Other pipes are made of wood, such as the large bass pipes located in the west transept. The pipes range in size from 6 inches high and 1/4 inch wide to 18 feet high and 1 foot, 6 inches wide.

Each pipe sits on top of a “windchest”, which is basically an airtight box filled with compressed air supplied at a constant pressure by an air pump and air pressure regulators (bellows). Where each pipe connects to the windchest, there is a leather stopper which moves aside when the organist presses the appropriate key on the console. Air rushes into the pipe creating the sound.

The “stops” are the 141 knobs located on either side of the 4 keyboards in the console. They control which pipes are played when a key is depressed. The organist determines what mixing and coloring of sounds is desired and opens the stops in the appropriate combination. As many as 270 pipes can be made to sound with the pressing of only one key.

The design work for the Saint Thomas Organ included the selection of pipes to achieve the aforementioned American Classic tonal design, locating the pipes to fit best with the architecture and acoustics of the building, and laying out the wiring and compressed air systems. The majority of the pipes are located in large rooms behind the two sets of visible pipes at either side of the altar and behind the vertical louvres called “swell shutters”. The shutters are used to blend sound volume and timbre. The organ chambers were already in place in the building, but required redesigning to accommodate the new organ. A separate soundproof room was added to house the 5 horsepower electric blower used to provide air to the pipes.

In addition to designing the organ, Mr. Harris and Mr. McDonough installed each pipe, all compressed air lines, and each windchest, restoring existing ones and constructing new ones, as required. Several miles of electrical wire were installed to connect each pipe valve to the relay system, which is operated by the stop controls on the console. Damaged pipes were repaired as needed. Finally, each pipe was “voiced”, which is the fine tuning of volume, pitch, brilliance, speech, and other tonal characteristics.

Weston Harris is both an organ builder and noted concert organist. His training as an organist included extensive study with Dr. Alexander Schreiner, former chief organist of the famed Salt Lake Mormon Tabernacle. Mr. Harris has performed throughout Great Britain, Europe, and the U.S. His organ-building apprenticeship was served with Wayne N. Devereaux, former chief organ technician of the Salt Lake Mormon Tabernacle Organ. Mr. Harris’ experience with the premier Aeolian Skinner Organ, at the Salt Lake Tabernacle, is reflected in the design of the Saint Thomas Organ.

The elegant woodwork and decorative elements of the instrument were designed and crafted by Thomas J. McDonough. He studied architecture at the University of Minnesota, fine art and art history at Minneapolis College of Art Design, and Gothic architecture in the cathedrals of northern France. His design and woodcrafting skills are evident in the decorative mahogany organ cases which support the visible pipes at either side of the altar as well as the decorative cases on either side of the door to the Memorial Chapel. All pieces were created to appear to be part of the church’s original design.

The organ of Saint Thomas the Apostle Episcopal Church is dedicated to the glory and worship of God, continuing the Anglican tradition of musical excellence, and enriching those who enter these walls.

If you have questions about our instrument, please contact the office.


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