September 2015 TAO Feature Article

First Presbyterian Church, Asheville, NC
Holtkamp Organ Company, Cleveland, OH

By Richard Parsons

Photo by David Dietrich Photography, Asheville, NC

Photo by David Dietrich Photography, Asheville, NC

The Land of the Blue Smoke. That is the name the Cherokee Indians gave to the high plateau in western North Carolina. Lying at an altitude of roughly 3,000 feet, it is surrounded by six peaks, all of which have altitudes greater than 6,000 feet. The highest is Mount Mitchell, which at 6,683 feet is the highest peak in the eastern United States. The plateau itself covers nearly 1,000 square miles. At its center is the confluence of the Swannanoa and French Broad rivers. Near this confluence is Asheville, North Carolina.

The first European settlers in the area arrived in 1784. First Presbyterian Church, founded in 1794, was known as the “church at the mouth of the Swannanoa River” and was incorporated in 1797. Its first worship space was a small wood structure. The second was a brick church, built in 1841, that seated 175 people. As Asheville grew, the church prospered. Its many expansions over the years included changing the axis of the church; lengthening the church; adding transepts, a balcony, and a Gothic-style chancel area; and redesigning the interior to be Gothic in character.

The original pipe organ installed at First Presbyterian, in 1890, was a Roosevelt. It was placed in the front of the worship space, speaking directly down the central axis of the nave. No information exists regarding the specification of this instrument. In 1951, the church underwent a major expansion that included, among other things, a chancel area built onto the then-front wall of the church. With this addition, the Roosevelt organ was removed, and an Aeolian-Skinner installed in a large chamber on the left side of the chancel. This instrument, while colorful and expressive, was not adequate to lead the congregation in worship. In response to this need, the church engaged Casavant Freres to add an Antiphonal organ in 1984 and two stops to the Great in 1986.

Early in the 21st century, the church leadership recognized that there were aspects of the church infrastructure that were in need of repair and maintenance. Additionally, the leather in the Aeolian-Skinner was beginning to fail. These two concerns, along with a desire to provide a more inclusive worship experience and enhanced fellowship, gave rise eventually to a capital campaign that funded, among other things, the new pipe organ.

Image_002First Presbyterian began investigating the possibilities of organ restoration or replacement of the existing instrument in 2004. Early on, it was recognized that in order to effectively lead the congregation and project into the worship space with the true color and clarity of the pipework, the organ needed to be moved out of the side chamber and into the chancel area. This decision was followed by the formation of the Organ Search Committee in 2007. After hearing instruments from a number of different builders, the committee selected Holtkamp.

An examination of the organ found all pipework (Roosevelt, Aeolian-Skinner, and Casavant) to be in excellent condition. The instrument had been well cared for over the years, and represented a significant investment in both time and materials. It was in the best interest of the church to use each stop where appropriate in the new organ. “Where appropriate” could mean: using stops from the existing organ exactly “as is” in the new organ; rescaling the existing pipework, moderately or significantly; or not using an existing stop at all. With the First Presbyterian organ, all three approaches were employed, and a significant amount of new pipework was added.

Inaugural Holtkamp organ recital (photo: Joe Franklin Photography, Asheville, NC)

The scaling of the organ is on the large side for the church’s worship space–for two reasons. First, the chancel arch functions as a partial impediment to the sound of the organ projecting directly to the congregation. Second, the transepts act as a sound trap, preventing the sound of the organ from projecting directly to the congregation. Because of these two conditions, all scales in the organ were planned one to four scales larger than warranted by the size of the space, and depending on their placement within the organ. The voicing in general is focused on creating well-integrated vertical ensembles. The overall effect of the instrument is one of elegance and simplicity, power and intimacy, balance and color. It is a wonderful marriage of acoustic and instrument, and is full and supportive without being overpowering.

The visual design was influenced by a number of factors, including the general Gothic style of the worship space. In addition, there is a beautiful and beloved rose window in the rear chancel wall. The first design requirement was to maintain the window’s visibility from all areas of the worship space. Also, as part of the drive to provide a more inclusive worship experience, the chancel area was completely redesigned and extended into the nave area. The new chancel platform, which  is centered beneath the transept crossing, is circular in plan. The side towers of the organ case were built at an angle of 17.5 degrees to the center of the case, reflecting the spirit of this circular design. The pipe shades were inspired by the vertical mullions on the side windows of the worship space. Lastly, the color of the pipe shade screens was derived from the rose window in the rear chancel wall.

Restore, Renew, Rejoice! This is the name of the capital campaign designed to fund the infrastructure repair and maintenance, chancel and worship space renovation, and pipe organ at First Presbyterian Church. It reflects the steadfast leadership and long-range vision that has made First Presbyterian a leader in Asheville since its founding in 1794. The new pipe organ is also a leader in the church and will provide spiritual restoration, renewal, and rejoicing to the many families and individuals who worship at the First Presbyterian, now and for generations to come.

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F. Christian Holtkamp, president and artistic/tonal director of Holtkamp Organ Company, is the sixth generation of leadership at the company. He holds a master of music degree in organ performance and has studied voice in high school and as an undergraduate. He is a member of the AGO, Associated Pipe Organ Builders of America, American Institute of Organbuilders, and Organ Historical Society.


  1. Who is the very talented craftsman who designed and built the furniture on your Sept. cover?

    Please be sure to give whoever it is credit!!!!!

    Thank you,
    Jill Spaeh, AIA

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