December 2019 TAO Feature Article

The McLean Memorial Organ:
Its History and Evolution (1919–2019)
By F. Anthony Thurman

The McLean Memorial Organ at the First Presbyterian Church in Germantown (northwest Philadelphia) has a rich and storied history. It is not only the largest church organ in Philadelphia but also one of the largest pipe organs in the Delaware Valley. The roster of prominent performers who have played it over the last century would be too long to begin to list.

When I was hired as music director at First Church in 2016, I knew right away that this was a very special organ but one that was desperately in need of intensive care. Wind leaks in the century-old windchests were louder than the softest stops on the organ. Dead notes compromised the musical integrity of every division; ciphers were a common occurrence. After nearly a century of service, a major rebuild, and several renovations, it was clear to me that in order for this organ to hold its rightful place as a shining jewel in Philadelphia’s crown of fine organs, it was time to make mechanical repairs of the instrument a priority.

Gallery organ (photo: Len Levasseur)

Since the relationship between the organist and the organ technician is of paramount importance in ensuring the well-being and longevity of any instrument, I contacted Emery Brothers to come and survey the instrument with me, as I had just completed working with them on an organ project in New Jersey, where I had been a consultant. Stephen Emery and Adam Dieffenbach met with me to create a master plan, addressing the most serious problems first. Late in the fall of 2016, we took our first steps toward a ten-year mechanical restoration effort. Since then, hardly a day has passed without communication between us.

The 1919 Organ

Built by the Austin Organ Co., in 1919, the instrument was one of the largest the firm produced in the early 20th century. The organ was given by Mrs. William L. (Sarah) Warden McLean as a memorial to members of her family, including a son, Lt. Warden McLean, an American soldier who died during World War I. Mrs. McLean also established a trust fund for the organ in accordance with her expressed desire “that the condition of the organ shall be so kept up that its efficiency shall always remain unimpaired.”

The church organist at the time was Stanley Addicks. He drew up the specification for a grand double organ with 79 stops specified for the gallery and 45 for the chancel, retaining some ranks from the 1895 Haskell organ, which had been played by Guilmant during his American tour in 1898. The organ included 124 stops and nearly 7,000 pipes, plus chimes, harp, and carillons (a reiterating percussion with 37 metal bars) in the gallery. A four-manual console was provided containing 61 adjustable combination buttons and 16 combination pedals. The organ was notable not only for its size but also because of its orchestral design and independent string division, which was coming into fashion at that time and was reported to have been the first of its kind ever known to have been built for a church. This division was placed, together with an Echo organ, above a pierced wood ceiling in the chancel.

Departing Hartford: Portions of the McLean Memorial Organ loaded for transport (photo: The Diapason, May 1918)

Mrs. McLean signed the contract for the new organ herself and paid for it in full at a cost of $24,500. An avid theater lover, she frequently attended performances in New York City. Several additions were made to the contract after she heard instruments she liked at the theater and wanted to have them in the organ. Although some of these additions, including a saxophone and a glockenspiel, were not necessarily considered suitable for a church organ, Austin obliged, adding the changes to the contract in pencil.

Original 1919 Austin console (photo: dedication program)

Germantown’s Giant, as it is described in Austin Organs by Orpha Ochse, was the second-largest organ in the city of Philadelphia, after the Wanamaker, when it was dedicated on April 27, 1919. The dedicatory recital was played by Joseph Bonnet, whose program included works by Purcell, Bach, Clérambault, Liszt, and Widor, as well as the performer’s own Angelus du Soir. Later the same day, a service of reconsecration of the church was held, before which Stanley Addicks performed a recital of music by Best, Stoughton, Saint-Saëns, and Widor. The Widor Toccata was performed twice that day, both by Bonnet and Addicks.

Considerable repairs, including releathering of actions and reservoirs, were made by M.P. Möller in 1944–45, after which Möller continued to provide regular service for the instrument. Additional repairs and a cleaning of the organ were conducted in 1950–52 by Edgar H. Mangan Co. of Philadelphia.

Changes in musical taste and worship often dictate modifications to a church organ. It would be highly unusual for an instrument of this size to remain in an unaltered state for 100 years. This has been the case with the McLean Memorial Organ.

The 1964 Rebuilding

Console on hydraulic lift in concert position (photo: Len Levasseur)

The organ was rededicated in 1964 following a major “rebuilding and modernization” by Austin, which included a new four-manual drawknob console. The new specification, which reflected a shift in musical taste that was prevalent at the time, was created by First Church Germantown organist Robert Carwithen in consultation with Alexander McCurdy, organist at the First Presbyterian Church in Philadelphia. While some of the original pipework was retained, the String and Echo divisions were abandoned altogether.

The rebuilt organ reduced the size of the organ to 92 ranks and nearly 5,300 pipes. Speculation that McCurdy wanted to reduce the size of the Germantown organ so First Church Philadelphia would become the larger of the two is an interesting account from local urban legend.

At the service of rededication, Carwithen performed solo repertoire by Bach and Mozart and concertos by Handel and Poulenc with orchestra. Succeeding rededication performances included the Brahms Requiem with Joan Lippincott serving as organist, and a recital by Virgil Fox. Applause at Fox’s recital is reported to have been the first in the history of the church. Later in the year, the instrument was featured at the 1964 AGO National Convention in a recital by Ladd Thomas. In 1970, a second, movable three-manual Austin console was added on the main floor of the sanctuary, where it was used to accompany the oratorio choir Carwithen conducted and for concerts where the organist could be visible.

The 1990s Renovations

A renovation of the front of the church in the mid-1990s, following the designs of Terry Byrd Eason, expanded the choir loft from 24 to 60 seats and provided movable furniture in the chancel that could easily be removed to convert the space from liturgical use to concert purposes. At the same time and under the leadership of Russell Patterson, the organ was revoiced and augmented with vintage pipework from Austin, Haskell, Roosevelt, Skinner, and Steere. Forty-four gallery and twelve chancel facade pipes from the 1919 instrument, which had been silent since 1964, were made to speak again. A Tuba Mirabilis (en chamade) was donated by Jack and Carolyn Asher. New blowers were installed in 1998 after a catastrophic failure of the original Spencer gallery blower in 1997, immediately prior to a concert by the Philadelphia Youth Orchestra and the Germantown Oratorio Choir.

With the newly expanded choir loft, two organ consoles were no longer needed. R.A. Colby was contracted to build and install a new four-manual curved terrace-style tilting-tablet organ console for the expanded choir loft; to update the wiring throughout the organ, replacing cotton-covered wires with modern wiring to meet electrical code; and to add a new Positiv division of 10 ranks and 32 Walker digital voices in the chancel that would offer more options for choral accompaniment. This project was completed in 1999. Patterson and the Germantown Oratorio Choir performed Vierne’s Messe solennelle in a dedicatory concert.

Today

The McLean Memorial Organ includes 125 ranks and nearly 7,000 individual pipes of both wood and metal ranging in size from a pencil to a telephone pole, all played from a four-manual organ console with more than 350 stop controls. The console is on a hydraulic lift that can be raised for solo performances and lowered for services and concerts, so as not to impede on sight lines between conductors and performers. This feature had been recommended and donated by Roy E. Hock, who was chair of the property committee and instrumental in the 1990s renovations.

1999 Colby console (photo: Len Levasseur)

Today the organ is used to lead congregational singing and choral anthems in worship each Sunday. Services are framed by organ voluntaries at the beginning and end; the congregation sits to listen to the organ postlude each week. It is also used for concerts by the Germantown Oratorio Choir, Keystone State Boychoir, Philadelphia Sinfonia, and other performing groups.

With major repairs already accomplished and a master plan to proceed with those that remain, Emery Brothers and the First Presbyterian Church in Germantown are preparing the McLean Memorial Organ for another century of service and enjoyment by the Philadelphia community. Mrs. McLean’s legacy and vision for the future will ensure that this instrument is enjoyed both in worship and in concert by generations to follow.

To celebrate the centennial anniversary of the McLean Memorial Organ, the church has planned a series of free public concerts in 2019–20, all cosponsored by the Philadelphia AGO Chapter and the Pennsylvania Council on the Arts, a state agency funded by the Commonwealth of Pennsylvania and the National Endowment for the Arts, a federal agency. Learn more about these concerts.

Emery Brothers, the curators of the McLean Memorial Organ, services more than 300 instruments in the Greater Philadelphia region. In addition to their work on this instrument, the firm has been busy lately finishing the installation of the Aeolian-Skinner organ at Stoneleigh (the home of the Organ Historical Society), restoring the Skinner organ at St. Mark’s Episcopal Church (Locust Street), restoring Möller Opus 8128 for reinstallation at the Church of the Holy Trinity (Rittenhouse Square), and designing a new organ for Philadelphia Episcopal Cathedral. Learn more at emerybrothers.com.

The First Presbyterian Church in Germantown is an inclusive community that has a longstanding commitment to the arts and to making high-quality programming accessible to the ethnically, racially, and economically diverse residents of the neighborhood. The church has maintained a strong and vibrant position in the community for more than 200 years and is one of only a few congregations in the Presbyterian Church (USA) to be successfully and wholly integrated.

View the stoplist

Links to sample recordings of the McLean Memorial Organ:
McLean Organ 1
McLean Organ 2

Bibliography

Armstrong, Agnes, et al. Organ Historical Society Philadelphia 2016 Diamond Jubilee Commemorative Anthology. Richmond: OHS Press, 2016.
“Church Organ with 112 Stops to Be Installed.” The Diapason 8, no. 6 (1917): 1.
Dripps, Rev. J. Frederick. History of the First Presbyterian Church in Germantown. Philadelphia: Allen, Lane & Scott, 1909.
Finney, Rev. John Clark. Encyclopedia of the First Presbyterian Church in Germantown. Philadelphia, 1959.
“First Presbyterian Church of Germantown, Philadelphia, Pa.” The Diapason 55, no. 8 (1964): 13.
Kendig, H. Evert, William Woods, Milton C. Cooper, and E. Naudain Simons. History of the First Presbyterian Church in Germantown and Its Present Activities (1809–1952). Philadelphia: Allen, Lane & Scott, 1952.
Ochse, Orpha. Austin Organs. Richmond: OHS Press, 2001.
Schalow, Louise M. “The History of the Organ at the First Presbyterian Church in Germantown.” Unpublished manuscript, Princeton, 1975.
“Stanley Addicks’ New Organ,” The American Organist 2, no. 12 (1919): 507–510.

The author wishes to credit the following individuals for sharing their assistance, knowledge, and anecdotes in preparing this article: Anthony Baglivi, Ted W. Barr, Lois Nafziger Bethea, W. Eric Birk, Robert Carwithen, Brad Colby, Adam Dieffenbach, Marc DiNardo, Brantley Duddy, Stephen Emery, Michael Fazio, Len Levasseur, Faith Lewis, Russell Patterson, Bynum Petty, J. Randall Rosensteel, Rollin Smith, and Samuel Whyte.

F. Anthony Thurman is music director and organist at the First Presbyterian Church in Germantown, Philadelphia, Pa., and has served as organist and organ consultant for churches in New York, New Jersey, Connecticut, Pennsylvania, and Kentucky. He holds a doctor of musical arts degree from the Manhattan School of Music.

William L. McLean was the owner and publisher of the Philadelphia Evening Bulletin, one of America’s most influential newspapers. He purchased the newspaper in 1895, and it remained in the family until it was sold in 1980. It ceased operations in 1982.

During the 1930s, Sunday evening services featuring major choral works were preceded by organ
music that was amplified through the church tower.

Organists of the McLean Memorial Organ
1909–1927 Stanley Addicks
1927–1940 N. Lindsay Norden
1940–1959 Ira M. Ruth
1960–1986 Robert Carwithen
1986–1987 Irene Willis
1987–2007 Russell Patterson
2007–2015 David Daugherty
2016–Present F. Anthony Thurman

 

 

 

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