Westminster Presbyterian Church Organs
1866 to the Present
An old photograph [now missing] shows a tiny console in the old wooden church, about the size of an upright piano, with a few small pipes sticking out behind the choir loft. At the right of the instrument is a black screen, hiding the person who stood there, pumping air into the windchest to keep up the pressure as the organist played, and as the congregation sang “We gather together… .” That was Westminster then, located at 6th and L until 1903, when attendance outgrew seating, and a new and larger church was built at 13th and K (across from today’s Convention Center). The organ of 1903 was more impressive, with more than fifty [sic] pipes (some 16 feet tall) spread across the rear of the chancel. With this instrument, plus an outstanding choir and orchestra, Westminster became known for its good music. The Session took this into account and planned the present building to continue the fine music tradition.
Architects and designers of the new building, following the trends of the times, decided [in 1926] that an organ should be heard and not seen, and tucked the pipes away in hidden chambers, expecting the music to drift into the sanctuary through heavy lattice masonry: It was a clean, uncluttered, impressive design that earned raves for its beauty, but at the expense of muffling some of the brighter organ sounds. Built to meet the architectural and budgetary constraints by Reuter Organ Company of Lawrence, Kansas, the instrument served its time well, and was still useable into the 1980’s, although damaged by water leaks and vandalism.
But Westminster benefactors and members decided that it was time to bring the pipes out of the ‘closets’ in order to upgrade the organ to match the grandeur of the sanctuary and to attain higher musical standards. In the process, it was decided to save the best “romantic” pipework from the Reuter, to remove the lattice massory from the swell and choir chambers, and to add brighter ranks of pipes so the instrument would better accompany choir and congregation and measure up to the demands of special music events. The Session and membership launched an organ fund campaign in 1981, and with the help of several very generous benefactors, soon raised the amount needed to pay for the expanded instrument.
The 1983 Möller organ, made in Hagerstown, Maryland, currently has 50 ranks [sets of pipes] and more than 3000 pipes. (The Reuter had 28 ranks). The largest pipe is 16 feet long; the smallest, an inch and a half. With two and one half times the power of the old Reuter, its capacity to play from quietude to thunder is thrilling.
An organ without an organist is a tool without a craftsman; and organists are born, not made. The Bible calls them the descendants of Jubal, “father of all such as handle the harp and the organ.” Such men and women spend a good share of their lives sitting on a hard wooden bench at a console, in a cold or hot sanctuary, under arduous self-discipline, fulfilling their destiny and enriching the lives of all who listen. Among the keyboard artists who have poured full measure of time and talent into Westminster instruments are: Mrs. Edward [Zue Geary] Pease, John Lewis, George Barr, Gil Crane, Lee Ralph, Hazel Detamble, Sue Miller, Roger Nyquist, Beth Tinker, Charles Galetar, and current organist Bradley Slocum.
John Milton might well have been sitting in a sanctuary pew, hearing the grand Möller Organ when he wrote:
And storied windows richly dight,
Casting a dim religious light.
There let the pealing organ blow,
To the full-voiced quire below,
In service high, and anthems clear
As may, with sweetness, through mine ear
Dissolve me into ecstasies,
And bring all heaven before mine eyes.
Note: The above history (with a few updates and edits) was taken from the September, 25, 1983 Organ Dedication program.
– Brad Slocum November 2005