May 2020 TAO Feature Article

The Renovation of the Christ (Crystal) Cathedral Organ
Garden Grove, California
Fratelli Ruffatti
Padova, Italy
Stop List 1
Stop List 2

By Francesco Ruffatti

What an exciting journey! The story started in 1970, when our firm was contacted by Richard Unfried, the organist of the Garden Grove Community Church in Garden Grove, California. Negotiations began for the manufacturing of a very large five-manual instrument. It was to be installed in a building that, in addition to being a formal sanctuary, was also used as a drive-in church, featuring large glass doors overlooking the parking lot, making it possible for people to follow Dr. Robert Schuller’s service from their cars.

The contract for a new organ was signed in May 1972, but the project was stopped soon after, pending the decision to build a new church on campus. An idea was already in place for the construction of the Crystal Cathedral, but it did not materialize right away. The organ project therefore continued, and in 1974, Dr. Schuller and his wife, Arvella, came to visit the Fratelli Ruffatti workshop in Padua, Italy, to witness the construction of the instrument. Three years later the organ was in place and was inaugurated by Richard Unfried. Following concerts included various organists, among whom were Diane Bish, David Craighead, and Virgil Fox.

Chancel Organ

Soon after the organ opening, at the end of August 1977, Virgil Fox made a memorable direct-to-disc recording on the instrument, a very demanding task that required playing the entire program with only brief intervals between pieces. There was no opportunity for editing. During those sessions, the first digital tape recordings in the U.S. were also made. I was there for the event, which took place at night to avoid traffic noise.

In 1979, the Crystal Cathedral was being designed by famous architect Philip Johnson, and plans began to transfer the two-year-old Ruffatti instrument to the new environment. It was soon clear, however, that a more complex instrument was needed for the larger space of the cathedral. Virgil Fox was appointed by Dr. Schuller as organ consultant, and the opportunity arose to acquire the 1966 Aeolian-Skinner that was being removed from Philharmonic Hall in New York. Dr. Schuller did not miss the occasion and purchased the instrument. In October of the same year, at a meeting in Philip Johnson’s offices in New York, Piero Ruffatti, Philip Johnson, Virgil Fox, and Arvella Schuller approved the new specifications. This was not an easy task because of Virgil’s requests for an overwhelming number of additions. In the end, Arvella Schuller was able to set a firm limit to the project. During the following days Piero worked in the New York offices on the general visual layout of the instrument, which Philip Johnson approved.

The Ruffatti organ was combined with the Aeolian-Skinner, and several additions were made by Ruffatti. The project was made possible by a very sizeable donation by Mrs. Hazel Wright from Chicago, a viewer of the Hour of Power television program that was then broadcast from Garden Grove throughout the U.S. and internationally. The new instrument in the Crystal Cathedral was named after her and is still today referred to as “Hazel.”

West gallery chamades

At the end of October 1980, acting on suggestions by Virgil Fox, I made a visit to the Riverside Church in New York and to the Wanamaker organ in Philadelphia to study various stops that would then be manufactured in the Ruffatti workshop for the new String division. It was during one such visit, on October 25, that Virgil Fox died.

The new instrument, among the largest in the world and featuring what was at the time the largest drawknob console in the world, was inaugurated in 1982 with a gala concert by Pierre Cochereau, organist of the Cathedral of Notre-Dame in Paris, and recitalist Ted Alan Worth, with orchestra conducted by Jean-Marc Cochereau and a thousand-member choir formed of several area choirs. A number of concerts followed during 1982 and 1983 by some of the most notable artists of the time.

Over the years, a number of additions to the instrument were carried out by curators John Wilson, Guy Henderson, and Brian Sawyers, bringing the total number of pipes to 16,000 and making the instrument one of the largest in the world.

Harsh conditions in the building, including rainwater leaking from the ceiling’s glass panels, as well as the severely reduced maintenance in recent years, caused the whole instrument to fall into severe disrepair.

In the period between November 2013 and March 2020 the organ was disassembled, carefully restored, then put in storage for a rather long time prior to the completion of the building’s total renovation. It was then reassembled, a task that was carried out under the direction and supervision of Piero Ruffatti. At that point, three of my voicers and I carried out the task of voicing and tuning the over 16,000 pipes of the instrument. The sound of all pipes was checked and rebalanced to the remarkable new acoustics.

The iconic Hazel Wright Organ now has a new life, and plans are in place for formidable musical activity, thanks to the wisdom of the Most Reverend Kevin William Vann, bishop of the Roman Catholic Diocese of Orange, and the leadership of director of music John Romeri and cathedral organist David Ball.

Francesco Ruffatti is the tonal designer for Fratelli Ruffatti, and personally performs the tonal finishing on many new Ruffatti organs. He also finishes most of the historic restorations performed by Ruffatti, and is known internationally as a lecturer on the subject. Website.


By Frederick Swann

Few pipe organs in history have received as much attention as has the iconic Fratelli Ruffatti instrument dedicated in May 1982 in the Crystal Cathedral in Garden Grove, California. For many years it was seen and heard weekly by millions of people via television throughout the United States and in over 130 foreign countries on the Hour of Power with Dr. Robert Schuller. In addition to those who heard it on recordings, tens of thousands experienced it live for over three decades in religious services, solo recitals, and a variety of musical presentations.

Crucifix and chancel organ

It is generally known that the plan for this instrument was made by Virgil Fox, who died prior to the installation. The1977 Ruffatti in the former worship space of the congregation was combined with the 1966 Aeolian-Skinner in Philharmonic Hall in New York City. The Ruffatti firm added several new divisions, all controlled by what was, at the time, the largest drawknob console in the world: 5 manuals, 363 drawknobs, 68 coupler tablets, and a myriad of control assists. The organ was an instant success. Many carefully considered changes and additions were made in the early years. The stoplist accompanying this article is the final result. No changes were made during the renovation.

Over the years the organ was used on a daily basis. It was beautifully maintained by curators John Wilson, Guy Henderson, and Brian Sawyers. Mr. Sawyers continued the work with various helpers for many years after the death of Mr. Wilson and the debilitating illness of Mr. Henderson. The lack of heating and air-conditioning in the building resulted in many large windows being open for 24 hours most days throughout the year. The accumulated dirt from blowing winds and visits of birds and insects plus drastic variations in temperature and humidity took a heavy toll on the organ. Portions ultimately became unusable despite the dedicated efforts of the curators.

In October 2010 Crystal Cathedral Ministries filed for bankruptcy. In February 2012 the entire campus of architecturally stunning buildings, including the 78,000-square-foot Philip Johnson glass cathedral and the original church (now known as the Arboretum), was purchased by the Roman Catholic Diocese of Orange, California.

You can perhaps imagine the joy felt when the diocese announced that the Hazel Wright Ruffatti in the cathedral and the Fred Swann Aeolian-Skinner in the Arboretum would be retained and that the cathedral organ would undergo a thorough restoration. Thankfully, both Bishop Kevin Vann and cathedral rector Fr. Christopher Smith are organists and realized the significant part the organs could play in the planned dynamic music program of the cathedral. It was soon announced that this would be under the direction of John Romeri and organist David Ball. A truly significant music ministry has been established by these gentlemen and staff.

In 2012, a committee of diocesan organists and clergy was formed under the direction of Msgr. Art Holquin. After due investigation and consideration, the decision was made to entrust the renovation of the organ to Fratelli Ruffatti. I was asked to be advisor and consultant throughout the several-year project, and I have been honored to accept these duties.

All pipes were cleaned, repaired, or replaced as necessary, and the chests restored or replaced. As mentioned, no changes were made in the specification.

The organ was removed from its chambers starting in December 2013. The work, supervised by Piero Ruffatti, was accomplished by six workers from the Ruffatti factory plus cathedral organ curators Brian Sawyers and Scott Clowes. The assistance of four riggers was required. The pipes were all carefully laid out rank by rank, covering the empty floor of the cathedral—an impressive sight—before being carefully packed for shipping.

The console, chests, and most pipes were shipped by sea to the Ruffatti factory in Padua, Italy. The Ruffatti company subcontracted Brian Sawyers to work on some of the pipes plus most of the Aeolian-Skinner pipes and some chest actions in his shop not far from the church. Major cleaning and all necessary repairs were finished by all on schedule, but the instrument could not be returned to the cathedral due to unexpected major repairs needed on the 10,000-plus windows. Meanwhile it was decided to keep the five-manual gallery console (Möller 1990), and it was sent to Italy, where it received an amazing transformation by Ruffatti.

Consequently it was necessary for the entire organ to be placed in a climate-controlled warehouse in May 2016. It was finally taken to the cathedral, and reinstallation began in January 2019. This was largely completed five months later. However, the enormous amount of wiring and careful detailing continued for months.

Although the entire organ remains in place as before, all visible woodwork portions have been painted a beautiful white color to blend with changes in the cathedral interior. Most exposed wooden pipes were also painted white.

When the organ was first tested we were all shocked. Due to the physical changes made in the cathedral interior, the organ sounded as if it had been designed for another building, which in reality it had been. The new acoustic was excellent, but the organ was much too bold a sound for the space. This necessitated the revoicing of almost every one of the more than 16,000 pipes. This enormous task was accomplished by Francesco Ruffatti and three assistants from the factory working two eleven-hour shifts each weekday for almost three months. The cathedral was closed to visitors except on weekends so that the work could be done in quiet. The flue revoicing was accomplished by the end of November 2019, and the reeds were started in December and continued in February 2020.

The Ruffattis have given unstintingly in every way to assure the success of the entire renovation project.

Gallery Organ

The remodeled Christ Cathedral was dedicated in mid-July 2019. A large Walker Technical Company digital organ has accompanied all Masses and programs and will be used until Easter 2020. The Walker voices that had been installed in the Ruffatti organ for bona fide reasons and used successfully for years are being replaced with the latest technology.

Finally, a bit about the most frequently asked question over the years. Many have wondered about the problems associated with the tuning of the organ. Keeping the organ sounding well was a challenge ever since the initial installation. The tuning was always done in evening hours. The tuning held well, but on warm mornings it was not possible to couple unenclosed and enclosed divisions. I always hoped for cloudy or overcast Sunday mornings, as coupling was then possible. By most afternoons, heat rendered the organ almost unusable. But, as soon as the sun went down the tuning quickly settled in perfectly.

This is why recitals were always played in the evening. When it was announced that all windows in the remodeled building would be sealed and air-conditioning installed, we became very hopeful. But since the organ is located at such a variety of heights and locations in the building, it has so far been impossible for the air-conditioning to reach them all. Consequently, the same challenges still exist with having all divisions maintain the same pitch at all times. This will continue to be worked on; meanwhile, learned knowledge and experience will be helpful for the most effective use of the organ.

Frederick Swann was director of music and organist of the Crystal Cathedral 1982­–98. Upon retirement he was designated director of music and organist emeritus, and the Aeolian-Skinner organ he had been instrumental in securing for the Arboretum was named the Fred Swann Organ.

“Resurgam” was published in its original form in the April 2020 issue of The Diapason. Used by permission. Photography: Challenge Roddie

Because of the severity of COVID-19, the May Rededication Weekend of the Hazel Wright Organ has been rescheduled. The Rededication Concert will now be played on Sunday, January 3, 2021, at 7:30 p.m. by Paul Jacobs, Hector Olivera, and Fred Swann, with special guests Michael Barone and Diane Bish. Monday will be filled with workshops and various presentations, and on Tuesday, January 5, 2021, the Pacific Symphony and organist Paul Jacobs will present a program for organ and orchestra at 7:30 p.m. Further details and ticket information are available at, as well as by email ( or phone (714–620–7912).

A new book by David Crean is being published; it will be available for purchase during the January Rededication Weekend events and may be ordered at a later date. It will consist of the history of other organs over the years in the buildings of the Crystal Cathedral congregation, with major and detailed emphasis on the Hazel Wright Organ in the cathedral.


  1. Joseph A. Pace, Jr. says:

    So many Sunday mornings on Dr. Schuller’s Hour of Power Television program, I witnessed Fred Swann play this magnificent instrument. So happy to know that it has been faithfully restored.
    Thank you Diocese of Orange County.

    • William M. Decker says:

      Visited the Cathedral some years ago, when the Ruffatti was already silent. The balcony organ was being used and developed a cipher during the postlude. I may just have to head out there from Florida come January 2021. Cheers…………..

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