Ernest M. Skinner (1866-1960)
Ernest M. Skinner is said to be one of the most influential American organ builders in the early 1900’s. Skinner was born in 1866, the child of two opera singers and grew up in Taunton, Massachusetts, where he pumped the bellows at the Unitarian Church. Skinner started out sweeping the floors in the Ryder organ company shop after dropping out of school. He quickly learned the art of designing and constructing pipe organs, and after visiting England and France in 1898 to see and hear famous instruments, he started his own organ firm in Boston in 1901.
His attention to quality, detail, and fine workmanship, along with many innovations and refinements led to widespread fame. Skinner organs were known as “symphonic” or “orchestral” because of the many stops designed to imitate musical instruments. The sound was romantic, lush, smooth, and very different from European organs. Orders from churches, colleges, theaters, municipal auditoriums, and even private residences continued to grow and the Skinner organ company eventually employed over 200 people.
Skinner, who preferred Wagner to Bach, felt that the first priority of his early organs was to imitate orchestral sounds. It was only in his later organs that it became important for an organ to sound like an organ. Skinner was a constant tinkerer, always determined to improve his products. His obsession with excellence got him the contracts to create most of the important instruments of the 1920’s including huge organs at Woolsley Hall, Yale University; the Cathedral of St. John the Divine, NYC; the National Cathedral, Washington, D.C.; and Rockefeller Chapel, University of Chicago.
After the stock market crash and onset of the Great Depression, many organ builders scaled back or went out of business. Skinner merged with the Aeolian organ firm and in 1932 the Aeolian-Skinner company began to produce organs. Unfortunately, E.M. Skinner’s business skills never matched his mechanical and musical genius and he was forced out. While Aeolian-Skinner organs are also excellent organs, they have a different character than pure Skinners.
In 1937, Skinner attempted a comeback and with his son and contracted to build a large organ for the National Cathedral in Washington, D.C. This organ has been modified over the years but still retains some of the original Skinner sound. E.M. Skinner built nearly 800 pipe organs between 1901 and 1942, including the Opus 190 at Grand Avenue Temple.
Skinner’s work went out of fashion after World War II. The “Organ Reform Movement” encouraged the replacement of older romantic instruments with organs which imitated those of the 18th century. Most of Skinner’s fine instruments were replaced or rebuilt beyond recognition. As luck would have it, these were the years when Historic Grand Avenue Temple’s membership was declining and because money was often in short supply, no changes were made to the organ. As a result, it remains a pristine example of the best of early 20th century organ building, and the envy of many congregations which replaced their Skinner organs.