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Knowles Memorial Chapel

The Great Organ

The Knowles Memorial Chapel organ has an elaborate history of its own.
While the organ has enjoyed several updates over the years, it still retains its original pipes from 1932.

An Imposing Centerpiece

While the organ has enjoyed several updates over the years, it still retains its original pipes from 1932.

With the encouragement of architect Ralph Adams Cram, Rollins College President Hamilton Holt and Frances Knowles Warren engaged the services of the Skinner Organ Company of Boston to build a three-manual organ for the Knowles Chapel. Cram and Ernest M. Skinner had worked together on many distinguished projects throughout the United States, including the Cathedral of St. John the Divine and St. Thomas Episcopal Church in New York. Both men enjoyed a reputation for unique artistry.

Skinner was by the mid-1920s regarded as the preeminent organ-builder of his day, and his instruments were known for their solid construction and the lush orchestral beauty of their tone, which was commonly referred to as the Symphonic Organ. The tonal design of the Knowles Chapel organ was probably a collaborative effort between Skinner and G. Donald Harrison, a former associate and protégé of the English organ-builder Henry Willis, who had come to America in 1927. It included Great, Swell, Choir, and Pedal divisions, and through Harrison’s influence, the English trumpets and tubas were introduced.

Dedication of the Knowles Memorial Chapel and Ernest M. Skinner organ was held on March 29, 1932, with Dr. Wallace Goodrich, Dean of the New England Conservatory, as guest organist.

By 1940, Harrison, now a renowned leader in the organ world, had become President of the Aeolian-Skinner Company, successors to the Skinner Company, and was instrumental in developing what became known as “the American Classic organ.” In this he was highly successful, and in the minds of organists, a Harrison-designed Aeolian-Skinner was the ultimate.

In 1955, together with Rollins College organ professors Catharine Crozier and Harold Gleason and Rollins Conservatory Director Robert  Hufstader, Mr. Harrison designed major tonal revisions and additions to expand the Knowles Chapel instrument’s capability of playing all schools of organ literature. This approach was essential if the organ was to be a viable instrument for an education institution.   

Much of the Knowles organ pipework was new in 1955, though essentially planted on existing chest actions. A few new windchests were added, as needed. The exposed Positiv division, mounted at front/left of the organ’s facade, and a completely new three-manual console were a part of this program. Unfortunately, Mr. Harrison died in 1956 before the work was finished. However, his able associate, Joseph S. Whiteford, saw the project to its completion. Two more additions to the organ were made over the next several years.

The Knowles Memorial Chapel organ has always enjoyed the reputation of being a distinctive installation located in an elegant and acoustically fine edifice. However, by the early 1990s, the original 1932 mechanisms, untouched since installation, were showing the ravages of age, and the organ had fallen into a serious state of disrepair. Perishable leather valve pouches and pneumatics were rapidly disintegrating. Wind-controlling reservoirs were falling apart. Electrical systems were unreliable. Many malfunctioning notes made the organ challenging, if not impossible, to play. The pipework needed cleaning, and in many cases judicious revoicing was greatly needed. Several organ-builders made spot repairs merely to keep the organ going, and a few submitted proposals for major restoration work. But there were no funds to see the organ through to the complete rebuilding it so desperately needed.

Finally, a group of concerned alumni and friends of the College, led by former Dean of Admissions John Oliver “Jack” Rich ’38, conducted a major fund-raising campaign to completely refurbish and enlarge the organ. They worked over many months (July 1998 through December 2001) to secure the necessary funds to build a new organ, and were gratified with the magnificent response to their earnest endeavors.

In February 1999, a contract for the new organ was signed with Randall Dyer & Associates, organ-builders based in Jefferson City, Tennessee. The stated goal of the contract was for a complete overhaul and refurbishment of the organ, in order to make it totally reliable and without loss of the magnificent sound of the Aeolian-Skinner instrument.

The organ is now essentially new mechanically, including new electropneumatic slider chests for Great, Swell, and Choir divisions; solid state switching and relay systems; and an all-electric, four-manual movable console, which provides many features previously unavailable. All the pipes of the 1932/1956 instrument have been retained. After cleaning and revoicing in the Dyer shop, with minor changes and additions to update them, these pipes are producing more glorious music than ever before.

A design wish of Ralph Adams Cram, overheard by Jack Rich when the architect was at Rollins in 1938 to receive an honorary doctorate, was “eventually to see an echo [antiphonal] organ added against the west wall and around the Rose Window.”

In late 1999, thanks to additional funds from donors—primarily from John M. Tiedtke ’75H, longtime trustee, former treasurer, and generous benefactor of Rollins—that dream became a reality. Randall Dyer & Associates were contracted to build a completely new, free-standing antiphonal organ at the rear of the balcony and surrounding the Rose Window. This new division gives the organ much additional presence in the Chapel, and is fronted by the horizontal pipes of the commanding Trompette-en-Chamade.

John J. Tyrrell, Gainesville, Florida, a former president of Aeolian-Skinner and now an associate of Randall Dyer, handled all the negotiations for the firm. He also did the architectural design for the antiphonal organ.

Final specifications for the Aeolian-Skinner/Randall Dyer organ were made by Bradley Jones, Tonal Director, in collaboration with Dr. Edmund LeRoy, Professor of Music, Rollins College.