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While educating Milwaukeeans is the heart of Milwaukee Area Technical College, there is another organ that is embedded, literally, into the Downtown institution, and it is really like no other in the world.
I’m talking about Skinner Organ Co.’s Opus 849, a 38-rank organ that is built into the fabric of the 1921 Van Ryn & DeGelleke-designed building on 6th and State Streets.
“Many people don't even know it's here,” says Jeff Weiler, president of Chicago-based JL Weiler, Inc., pipe organ curators, conservators and consultants, which has been tasked with restoring the 1931 instrument.
“This was a vital part of this institution back in the day and since it has fallen into disuse, it's largely been forgotten about. The organ was designed specifically for this space.”
The instrument has a whopping 2,621 pipes, three manuals, 34 stops and 67 registers and MATC’s records contain in-depth Skinner paperwork documenting every bit of it. There’s also a player – like a player piano – that uses paper rolls to automatically play the organ as if by human hands (and feet).
MATC, in fact, also has one of the world’s largest surviving collections of the rolls – 101 of them.
The rolls, player and organ are in the second-floor Cooley Auditorium, which currently seats 1,800 and has two balconies. Only the console is obvious to the casual observer – located center stage, down in front – but there is a five-rank Echo division behind a grill on the back wall of the second balcony, a three-rank Stage division that served as something of a monitor for performers onstage and multiple rooms above the proscenium housing pipes, a massive Spencer Orgoblo blower and a 1930 “computer” that runs the whole massive, 25-ton organ.
Sound from the pipes is directed down into Cooley through two grills that can be seen in the auditorium’s ceiling. Initially, there were two more Echo division grills toward the back of the ceiling, too, according to blueprints.
“This is a large symphonic instrument,” Weiler explains. “This is not a theater organ like you would have seen at The Riverside Theater or like the Wurlitzer organ that we're now installing at The Oriental Theater. This instrument is much more symphonic in nature. It's not a church organ either. It is built to be able to play symphonic organ concert literature.”
The organ cost $36,905 and the player another $17,000, which in today’s dollars is just shy of a million bucks.
“This instrument played a big role in the life of this institution,” says Weiler.
While the average MATC student may not be aware of the organ – which hasn’t gotten much play in recent decades – it’s no secret among organ aficionados.
"That’s a really cool organ,” enthuses Dean Rosko, a Milwaukee organist best known for his work playing at Brewers games. “It’s the only E.M. Skinner left in Milwaukee, and was built as a teaching organ, meaning that it’s relatively easy to access the chambers to view the pipes and related mechanisms.
“It has a lot of (Skinner’s) signature orchestrally imitative sounds – strings, reed stops and gorgeous flutes, in addition to the diapasons, or ‘foundation’ tones unique to the pipe organ. It certainly has the sound he was famous for, and why so many people think of the E.M. Skinner as the ‘Cadillac’ of pipe organs.”
Weiler first presented a proposal to restore the organ in 2014.
“We are embarking on the restoration of a musical instrument of international cultural importance,” says Weiler. “Most are no longer in existence, or have been altered to varying degrees. They've been ‘visited.’ And the fact that this one has survived in an unaltered state makes it very, very rare.
“The fact that it is one of this particular vintage makes it more special because this represents the best of the best. And so, that's why already there has been a tremendous amount of international interest in this.”
The Skinner Organ Company was founded as a partnership in Boston in 1902, though by 1904 Skinner was on his own and over the course of the next six years made about 30 organs. Skinner made a number of technological advances and became the premier maker of romantic organs in America.
According to a brief news item in the Journal on the last day of 1930, “a $40,000 organ and a $17,000 public address system have been purchased for the Milwaukee Vocational School. The organ was ordered recently and will be installed in the school auditorium by Aug. 1, Director Robert Cooley revealed. ... Radio concerts can be broadcast throughout the building; through selective apparatus, two different programs can be broadcast simultaneously.”
According to an internal Skinner memo dated Dec. 11, 1930, “a tonal result similar, in so far as possible, to that at Our Lady of Mt. Carmel in Chicago is what they want. They heard this organ.”
The Board of Industrial Education of the City of Milwaukee is the entity that contracted with Skinner to build the instrument for the vocational school, which was also known as the Central Continuation School. They handed off the selection and details to a committee of local organists that included Winogene Hewitt Kirchner, Lewis Vantine, Mrs. Reese Powell, Earl P. Morgan, Hermann Nott and W.J. Meyer.
The contract for Opus 849 was drawn up on Dec. 13, 1930 and signed 10 days later. All correspondence relating to the construction of the organ was to be directed to the building architects, Van Ryn & DeGelleke, rather than vocational school officials.
“While Aug. 1 is given as the completion date they will take the organ any time,” wrote Skinner’s W. S. Hardy in that December memo. “If we can beat this it will make a hit with them.”
Opus 849 was shipped in pieces from via Chicago, Milwaukee & St. Paul Railroad boxcars, which, one Skinner document noted, “has team tracks within a few blocks of the school building.”
There was some concern on the part of Skinner about the organ’s size, complexity and installation, leading Hardy to add a P.S. to his memo: “We are taking a lot of liability in this contract and I am going to make them accept this in writing so there will be no come back later on.”
On Aug. 30, 1931, the Journal offered an update.
“One of the finest pipe organs in the country is being installed in the main auditorium of the school and will be ready for use about Sept. 15. It has a mechanical player attachment.
In fact, Opus 849 made its public debut in front of an audience of 2,300 on Thursday, Nov. 12 when organist Marshall Bidwell gave a recital on it. Bidwell, who chaired the department of organ music at Coe College in Cedar Rapids, Iowa, was also director of the Cedar Rapids choral club, organist and choir director at First Presbyterian in that city and was also the municipal organist in town.
Bidwell’s program was to begin with Guilmant’s Introduction and allegro (Sonata I) and close with Sibelius’ “Finlandia,” in between performing works by Grieg, Wagner, Bach, Boccherini, Boellmann, Debussy, Mendelssohn and Tchaikovsky.
The previous night, Bidwell was welcomed with a dinner in his honor and he offered his opinion on what an organ recital should look like.
“To raise the standards of the public,” wrote Arthur A. Griebling in the Dec. 1, 1931 issue of The Diapason, an organ and church music magazine, “the performer must first reach its level and then gradually raise that level, he asserted. Most recitals, according to Mr. Bidwell, are not of that nature, but are calculated only for organists or other trained music lovers.
“Milwaukee has finally come into a municipally-owned organ and it is to be hoped that the use of this instrument will not be restricted to this school, but that the general public will have the opportunity to appreciate its value,” Griebling added.
By the time the MATC organ was built, Skinner had made and installed organs at Princeton, Yale, the University of Chicago’s Rockefeller Memorial Chapel and other prestigious institutions.
Skinner merged with the Æolian Company in 1932 and eventually folded in 1972. Over the years, many of its organs have been altered or lost altogether, boosting the financial and cultural value of the rare survivors.
There have been other Skinner/Skinner-Æolian organs in Milwaukee, including at the Marcus Center for the Performing Arts and at Nazareth Lutheran Church, 2375 N. 25th St., but no other survives in its original state.
“MATC have been wonderful stewards of this cultural asset,” says Weiler. “It has not been tinkered with. There's relatively few unaltered Skinner organs. So, it's exactly as it was left and therein lies its value because an instrument like this is a time machine.
“It's a very fortunate circumstance, indeed, that basically, this instrument was left alone. There's something that can be very valuable about benign neglect. And the fact that perhaps many people didn't realize that it was here or still here, it's been kept safe.”
Now, thanks to a variety of funding sources – more about that later – Weiler, whose business is restoring instruments like these, has been tapped to bring Opus 849 back to its original glory.
That means refinishing the gorgeous wood boxes that hold the player (that work is complete) and the console, but also blowing nearly a century of dust out of the pipes and replacing vintage organic parts that decay over time.
Weiler recently fired up the organ and heard it wheeze, making sounds it shouldn’t. So, basically, every piece of the massive organ will be touched during this work. Every pipe will be cleaned, every relay checked, every key and stop on the console will get attention.
“Instruments, when they reach a certain age, tend to develop faults and the faults develop through the deterioration of organic materials that are used. It's leather, it's felt. But the good news is the instruments like this were built in order to be rebuilt. So, those who created this 90 years ago did so knowing that people could come after them and reset the hands of the clock for the next 90 years.
“We are turning back the hands of the clock and bringing this all back to life. After it's restored, it will function and sound exactly as it did in 1930. So when we hear it, we'll be hearing exactly the same sounds that our grandparents heard, that our great grandparents heard, that our great, great grandparents heard. And so, in that way, it's a time machine.”
Fortunately, I was able to get an in-depth look at this time machine.
Starting in the Cooley, we checked out the console, which clearly needs work. As Weiler flicks switches and pulls stops to get ready to play, a switch falls off and lands between the pedals. Firing up the Orgoblo, which generates what Weiler calls the “hurricane” of wind required to power the Opus 849, he finds some things don’t work as they should, or, indeed, at all.
The Skinner makes some sound, but it’s masked by excess wind and the throatiness of dust-filled pipes.
“It just sort of moans and groans,” Weiler says. “It's not the sounds the we want it to make. And, to use another analogy, it's like listening to a radio with a real heavy blanket thrown over it. And so, part of the restoration will restore all the mechanical functions, but it will also restore the musical impact.
“The pipes are not speaking with clarity that they would have. So, that has been lost, but that will be returned.”
Organist Rosko has played the organ on multiple occasions and has noticed a decline.
“I last played it in the summer of 2019, at which time it was in pretty rough shape – a marked deterioration from my previous encounter the year before,” he says. “I’m so glad it’s getting the attention it deserves with a full restoration by the proper people. It’s really exciting that’s it’s going to be preserved for all of our enjoyment!”
We head up to the top of the auditorium to peek at the Echo division, which we can’t enter at the moment, but we peer through a grille that was added when the entire auditorium was modernized decades ago. With a flashlight we can see the original decorative Gothic-style grille that survives underneath. Part of the restoration may include re-exposing the original grille as a reminder of the organ’s existence.
Onstage we see the player, which has been restored already, and the rolls. We take a look at one to see the holes in the paper that not only told the organ which notes to play but also set all the stops and other controls, just as if a musician were playing the instrument.
On the box of each roll, written by hand, are the dates that they were played. “The Bells of St. Mary’s,” which we’re looking at, was last played on Feb 25, 1935. The earliest date is Dec, 11, 1933.
Heading upstairs through the school’s public corridors, we enter through an unmarked door and walk past the precipitous drop to the stage below of the fly loft to our right and enter a series of rooms connected by a catwalk.
Each of these four rooms is packed full of pipes, from the tiniest – not much bigger than a cigarette – to the largest, a whopping great elongated square wooden pipe that makes a sound just 32 hertz, at nearly the lowest level the human ear can hear. When this pipe sounds you feel it in your bones as much as you hear it with your ears.
“Coming up here the first time, for us, was like opening the pharaoh's tomb,” Weiler says. “Everything is so beautifully intact. It had just been locked up and forgotten.”
There’s an entrance at either end of the catwalk and that’s because MATC used to offer tours of the organ’s inner workings for vocational students to see the technology and craftsmanship.
Nearby, we walk down a few steps to reach another room, this one compact and filled with the Organblo and its ductwork.
“This is actually one of the most intriguing rooms,” says Weiler, a man after my own heart. “Number one, it's full of cool old stuff. Number two, it smells good.”
Each duct carrying air to the organ’s various chambers has a section made of fabric to prevent the blower’s vibrations from being transferred to the instrument.
“This is where it all starts,” Weiler says. “This big turbine blower creates a hurricane, and the hurricane is unleashed inside the organ.”
The sound passes through reservoirs that act like bellows to help regulate the pressure of the air entering the different chambers.
There are filters we can see through an opening in the wall that help keep dust out of the room.
“The two greatest enemies of an instrument like this are dust and water,” according to Weiler. “So we've been spared the water, but over the years ... I mean, we're in an urban area. The dust is going to accumulate.”
On two walls, roughly 6-7 feet high are rows and rows of intricate wiring and relays and other electronics that are the brain of the Opus 849. They are quite literally, a 1930 binary computer, and, looking at it, the mind boggles at the ingenuity, the intricacy, the skill required to create it.
“This is taking electrical signals, 12 volts DC, from either the player system or the console and it's sorting them out and sending them into the organ chambers to operate mechanisms,” Weiler explains. These are little busbars (to distribute power), and these are multi-contact switches, relays. Pretty damn cool.”
As in the pipe room, each little bit bears a handwritten description of the part or what it does or the organ’s 849 ID number. These serve as a reminder of the human hands that fabricated every bit of the 25-ton instrument.
While we’re up here above the auditorium ceiling I convince one of my MATC guides to let me peek into one of the gaps that allow for the changing of lightbulbs, because I’ve heard that the modernization of Cooley preserved all the original decor underneath.
Sure as can be, I find a gorgeous molding with a rose motif and manage to capture a couple photos.
Heading back downstairs, Laura Bray, MATC’s VP of College Advancement and External Communications explains how this massive, million-dollar restoration project is being underwritten.
The funding will come from a mix of sources, including MATC and the Joseph G. Bradley Charitable Foundation, says Bray.
"We have limited budget from an operational perspective, and we have limited funding for equipment and facilities upgrades, so, our ability to do it over several years from that facilities budget allowed us just a more sustainable way to do the upgrade and then also to get some private funding."
A large part of that private funding comes from Bradley, which focuses on exactly these kinds of projects, says Trustee Andy Nehrbas.
"I'm an investment manager and my client, this was his pet thing," Nehrbas says. "He had been an organist and a musician all his life and he was just really distressed at how many of these organs were disappearing because of the cost of maintaining them and restoring them.
"So when he passed away, he left his estate in a trust to take care of these organs."
At any given time, Nehrbas says, the foundation is working on projects to restore about three Skinner instruments.
"One of the things that's important is I rarely pay for all the work myself," he explains. "I usually partner with the community or the church or the institution, because I found over the years that they buy in a lot more when their money is in it as well as the foundation's."
And that's exactly what's happening in Milwaukee.
"We're going to support them for this project," Nehrbas says. "There's been some talk about doing a challenge grant whereby the Bradley Foundation will contribute money alongside of any money that the institution can raise, but they're raising a good part of it. I'm really excited about that they're totally bought into it as well as the foundation, so it's a pretty perfect project for me."
If you would like to help MATC raise the final $200,000 required for the restoration work, click here.
Born in Brooklyn, N.Y., where he lived until he was 17, Bobby received his BA-Mass Communications from UWM in 1989 and has lived in Walker's Point, Bay View, Enderis Park, South Milwaukee and on the East Side.
He has published three non-fiction books in Italy – including one about an event in Milwaukee history, which was published in the U.S. in autumn 2010. Four more books, all about Milwaukee, have been published by The History Press.
With his most recent band, The Yell Leaders, Bobby released four LPs and had a songs featured in episodes of TV's "Party of Five" and "Dawson's Creek," and films in Japan, South America and the U.S. The Yell Leaders were named the best unsigned band in their region by VH-1 as part of its Rock Across America 1998 Tour. Most recently, the band contributed tracks to a UK vinyl/CD tribute to the Redskins and collaborated on a track with Italian novelist Enrico Remmert.
He's produced three installments of the "OMCD" series of local music compilations for OnMilwaukee.com and in 2007 produced a CD of Italian music and poetry.
In 2005, he was awarded the City of Asti's (Italy) Journalism Prize for his work focusing on that area. He has also won awards from the Milwaukee Press Club.
He can be heard weekly on 88Nine Radio Milwaukee talking about his "Urban Spelunking" series of stories.