Hidden Splendor Revealed
Veiled by acoustic screens and standing in five separate chambers on both sides and above the chancel resides First Baptist Church of Denver’s Grand Aeolian-Skinner pipe organ. Though hidden, this mighty instrument projects a majestic wall of sound that glorifies God, pleases the ear, and inspires the human spirit. Its story is rooted in an American history of ingenuity and invention. Grand size, expansive scope, and historic significance are hallmarks of this incredible instrument.
The largest of its kind in Colorado, First Baptist Church’s pipe organ is made up of over 6,100 pipes. It takes a massive fifteen horsepower electric blower, capable of creating two different wind pressures, to supply air to all the pneumatic controls and wind chests. Tradition holds that this organ has 126 ranks, including 124 wind-blown ranks of pipes and two sets of percussive pipes: tubular chimes, and a glockenspiel.
The console sits in the middle of the chancel and is turned so that the organist faces the congregation. At one time, the choir stood squarely facing the console so that they could be directed from it. Later, to enhance vocal projection and to facilitate the conducting of the choir and congregational singing, the chancel was situated in the apsidal fashion it is today. Additionally, wooden grates which obstructed a large portion of the organ’s sound were replaced with cloth screens to allow the organ to resonate more fully in the sanctuary space.
Standing directly in front of the baptistery, one can view the organ console where the organist sits to play. The console houses four manuals, the pedal board, and ninety-six stops. It is an electro-pneumatic console with stop and key action and a Reisner combination action. The combination action was state-of-the-art technology for its time. The pipes, crafted in Europe and in North America, were selectively assembled by the designer and are among the finest in the world. There are also some parts in the pedal division built by Midmer-Losh. Midmer-Losh built the Boardwalk Hall Auditorium organ, largest organ in the world, named “The Senator’s Masterpiece.”
Firstborn of the American Classic Organ
Our Grand Aeolian-Skinner pipe organ is a direct ascendant of what is now known as the quintessential American Classic organ. Between the stock market crash of 1929 and World War II, pipe organs built in the United States rapidly morphed into their own kind of instrument. Rather than being built in the same way as those from particular regions of Europe, pipe organs began to incorporate design from a variety of backgrounds. Larger organs, especially those of Aeolian-Skinner, sought to tame a wild collection of tonalities into grand cohesive instruments. Spectacularly well-rounded voicing of these new kinds of organs, paired with electro-mechanical genius, resulted in magnificent instruments that organ builders seek to imitate and improve upon to this day. Part of what makes the First Baptist Church’s organ so uniquely special is the scope of organ building design and technology that is represented within these hallowed walls.
The Console as it was in Senator Richards' home
Source: The American Organist, February 1946
Meet the Designer
To know the Grand Aeolian-Skinner organ here at First Baptist, one must also know some of the story of Emerson Richards (1884-1963), a New Jersey State Senator from Atlantic City who was the catalyst for a wave of tremendous innovation in American organ building. Although politics was his profession, pipe organs were Richards’ passion and preoccupation. He described himself as an “Organ Architect” and, over the years, had some eighty articles published in organ journals. As a result of his design ideas and their practical demonstrations, his influence extended far beyond Atlantic City—even to Denver. He was dubbed “the Commander-in-Chief of the American Revolution in Organ Building” and was largely responsible for what was to become the “organ reform” and “American Classic” movements of the twentieth century.
At times, there was conflict between Richards and organ builders. It can be implied from the many letters between Richards and the Aeolian-Skinner Organ Company that nearly every time Richards found something unusual or interesting in organ pipe construction or design, he would soon show up at the company’s door step. There he would subsequently demand to be put at the head of the line to repair or re-voice a corresponding stop for use in his home organ.
First Baptist’s organ is, in large part, from Senator Richards’ home. Richards incorporated pioneering symphonic organ components by Estey, Skinner, Möller, and Midmer-Losh. Our organ originated in Richards’ residence as a 1926 Estey/Skinner organ and was the instrument with which he experimented. Richards added pipework and windchests from up to eight different builders and many time periods, some dating back to the nineteenth century. The 16' open wood in the pedal division, for instance, was added from an organ built in Germany in 1862 for the Boston Music Hall. This rank plays at low frequencies that are just as much felt as heard.
Beyond integrating a wide array of mechanics and entire ranks of pipes, results of innovative musical experiments abound in this organ. A 16' metal Principal rank was capped and turned into a very soft 32' Soubass. Funnel-shaped resonators were added to an 8' Vox Humana; it was then shortened to become the 2' Regal. Another Vox Humana had its resonators lengthened and was voiced as a Clarinet. All this exciting, unique, and brave experimentation occurred at a time in American history when electricity and large scale industrialization was merely the stuff of grand dreams. But Emerson Richards and others turned dreams into reality.
Eventually, Senator Richards was ready to move on from his grand experimentation to something new, so he placed his organ in storage. It seems “new and grand” was the Senator’s motto. He went on to design and order another organ built by Aeolian-Skinner for his residence.
A New Home for “The Senator’s Organ”
The one organ Senator Richards could ever be credited with building was known as “The Senator’s Organ.” He designed other organs, but he did not build them.
In 1937, the architect of the First Baptist Church only provided for two organ chambers on either side of the chancel; these provided enough space for about ten ranks each. However, when World War II ended, the congregation was eager to order a new organ for its new sanctuary, and their vision went beyond a mere twenty ranks. This new organ would be a match for the exquisite beauty of the church’s Christopher Wren-inspired architecture, which has been described as having English Renaissance, Old American Colonial, and Georgian Colonial style. Due to the long waiting list for new construction and a major pending event at the church, the congregation moved forward with a reimagining and enlargement of Senator Richards’ residence organ. Most of the Great and Solo divisions were built by the Aeolian-Skinner Organ Company and provided specifically for installation at First Baptist. Though some ranks were added from “stock” to expedite the process, G. Donald Harrison, president of the company, is quoted as saying, “I will do everything I can to give you a superb instrument.”
And superb it was. The “reborn” organ was installed around Christmas time in 1949 by Shoenstein and Sons of San Francisco and completed with great fanfare in 1951. “The Senator’s Organ” had been revived and was acclaimed in its new home as Denver’s “Grand Aeolian-Skinner Pipe Organ.” At the time, it was the largest organ of its kind between Chicago and Salt Lake City.
Accounting for inflation, the installed price tag was equivalent to a little more than $750,000—a bargain for its size. Organs of similar size built by the Aeolian-Skinner Organ Company started at costs that were at least twice that amount. Great choral works worthy of celebrating the church’s completed building accomplishments, such as “The Messiah,” “Elijah,” and “The Crucifixion,” were accompanied by the organ during these inaugural years.
First Baptist Church of Denver
at 14th and Grant
The Grand Aeolian-Skinner Pipe Organ
By the late 1950s, G. Donald Harrison had passed away and Emerson Richards had long since retired. The Grand Aeolian-Skinner organ at Denver’s First Baptist Church began to show wear from extensive use. The portion of the organ from Richard’s home had deteriorated rapidly due to the age of moving parts, a hasty installation, and the fact that this portion had not been built with longevity in mind, especially in Colorado’s dry climate.
In need of a major tune up, the church approached Aeolian-Skinner for advice. Roy Perry and Charles Moseley, representatives of the company, inspected the organ in 1957. John Tyrrell, vice-president, wrote that after reviewing the Perry/Moseley report, he recommended maintenance and monthly service by the Layton Organs firm in Colorado Springs. First Baptist sought and contracted the work of Dewey W. Layton Jr. whose extensive repairs were completed the following year. The first major service contract was signed at that time. Records indicate that Layton was approached by the church leaders to remove the console from its pit in order to allow the console to be moveable. Due to the complexity of this plan it was abandoned, since there are over 1,000 wires attached to the console as well as a sizeable windline for powering the pneumatics necessary for the stops and tabs to move automatically.
Through the years, several other organ companies have cared for the instrument. In addition to Layton, we have been blessed with the craftsmanship of Fred H. Meunier & Associates (now Ivan P. Morel & Associates of Denver), Norman Lane and Company of Denver, and Salmen Organ Company of South Dakota and currently, Harris Organ Works of Arvada, Colorado.