Click to enlargeErnest Skinner a great American Artist by Joe Vitacco

Ernest Skinner Speaks, mp3 file

Ernest M. Skinner (1866-1960) was born in Clarion, Pennsylvania, and was destined to become one of the most influential organ builders in the United States. The company he founded was to build an overwhelming number of organs for America's most distinguished convention halls, universities, churches, cathedrals and residences. The Skinner organ was the Cadillac of pipe organs for most of the first half of the twentieth century.

Probably seeing his first pipe organ at ten years old, Ernest M. Skinner became fascinated by the instrument that was to occupy his life for the next eighty-four years. At age twelve he made his first attempt to build a player pipe organ but couldn't get it to work. As a young man he moved from job to job until at age twenty he took a position with the noted nineteenth century organ-builder, George Ryder. He was fired by the shop foreman one morning and then went to work for George S. Hutchings. Mr. Skinner worked for the Hutchings Organ Company from 1889 to 1901. In February, 1898, he traveled abroad to England, France and Holland and examined the great pipe organs in these countries. While in England he met "Father" Willis and was deeply influenced by the instrument at St. George's Hall in Liverpool.

In 1901 he struck out on his own to realize his dream of making the pipe organ more expressive, like orchestral instruments, by exploiting all the benefits that the modern electro-pneumatic action allowed. He developed and greatly refined entirely new families of stops for the pipe organ. Unfortunately, Mr. Skinner was not a good businessman, frequently spending more money on his organs than the contract allowed and was occasionally delivering them behind schedule. Nevertheless, the Skinner firmís immaculate workmanship, clever innovations and beautiful tone consistently attracted new clients.

On August 23,1919, he gained financial salvation when millionaire chemist and organ aficionado, Arthur Hudson Marks (1874-1939), bought the controlling interest of the Ernest M. Skinner Company and proceeded to reorganize, streamline, and capitalize the new firm as Skinner Organ Company. Mr. Skinner made a study trip in 1924 to the factory of Henry Willis III in England in order to study new ideas in the tonal design of organs. Upon returning to America, he incorporated many of the best ideas he saw into his own, to synthesize something entirely new. Henry Willis III had an outstanding employee, G. Donald Harrison (1889-1956), and in 1927, with Willis' blessing, Arthur Hudson Marks hired Mr. Harrison to help Mr. Skinner improve the tonal design of the Skinner organ. Mr. Skinner welcomed G. Donald Harrison into the Skinner organization with open arms.

Mr. Marks brought Mr. Harrison to the United States as a potential successor to replace Mr. Skinner, though at that time Mr. Skinner had no idea of this plan. The good relationship between Mr. Skinner and Mr. Harrison did not last long. In 1930 tension had grown considerably between the two men. The stock market crash of 1929 exacerbated tensions at the firm. By that time Ernest Skinner wanted to leave the company he had founded, and fearing the negative effect this would have on the company, Mr. Marks offered Mr. Skinner $5000 per year just to keep his name affiliated with the company and not to compete with the Skinner Organ Company. Mr. Skinner's wife, knowing how imprudent her husband was with money, prevailed upon him to accept Mr. Mark's offer.

In the 1920s the Skinner Organ Company not only built solid pipe organs but also their balance sheet would be the envy of almost any modern organ-builder. A Dun Report dated April 9, 1928 on the Skinner Organ Company said, "The Company's statement taken as a whole represents an excellent financial condition." This is probably the only reason they were able to survive the Great Depression and World War II. According to Moody Industrial reports, the company generated a net income of $138,020 in 1924, $213,358 in 1925, $250,178 in 1926, $ 253,774 in 1927, $271,570 in 1928, $ 237,941 in 1929, $201,620 in 1930 and $10,670 in 1931. In 1928, the Skinner Organ Company had sales of $1,427,897, which in 2003 dollars would be the equivalent of about $15 million dollars. In that same year they employed 250 people and had $1,222,918 in assets and only $102,632 in liabilities, $45,491 of which were reserves for federal taxes. By 1931, sales fell to $603,949, and their gross margin fell from a typical 22% to 8%, although their balance sheet remained very solid.

Under the name Ernest M. Skinner and Son Organ Company, Mr. Skinner and his son Richmond built in 1937 a large organ for the National Cathedral in Washington, DC, as well as several other new and rebuilt instruments. About 1949, at age eighty-three, he completely retired from the organ building business.

The landscape of American organ building is constantly changing with new and evolving ideas about organ-building. The unfortunate result of this change was that many of Mr. Skinner's masterpieces were replaced with more "fashionable" instruments of the period. Sadly, Mr. Skinner spent his last years watching one after another of his largest and most famous instruments removed or rebuilt beyond recognition. Perhaps he would be happy to know that a new generation would someday respect and treasure his few remaining and unchanged instruments.

copyright Joseph Vitacco

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