Arlington Street Church is fortunate to have a number of excellent music instruments. We currently have four grand pianos (three Steinway & Sons and one Steinert), an Aeolian-Skinner organ, and a set of 16 hand-rung bells.
The Arlington Street Church steeple bells were a gift from Deacon Jonathan Phillips when the church was built. They were cast by Henry N. Hooper & Co. of Boston.
During the 1920s and 1930s the bells were rung from a small electric console in the choir loft. The bells were restored in 1960, and from that time they have been rung by hand.
There are sixteen bells in all, spanning an octave and a half. Each is inscribed with a Bible verse:
A History of the Arlington Street Church Organs
By Joyce Painter Rice (edited from an article published December 6, 1987)
with slight revisions by Miguel Felipe, Summer 2006
Boston has always been a leader in American organ building, and the Arlington Street Church congregation (formerly Federal Street Church) has had organs built by four of Boston’s (and the country’s) leading organ firms. William Goodrich (1777–1833), regarded as the father of Boston organ building, opened a shop in 1809 at Somerset Place, now Ashburton Place, and built an organ in 1810 for the Federal Street Church. It was a small organ, probably with one manual. In 1828, Goodrich built a larger organ of 14 stops for the church. It was to cost $1500, but the treasurer of the fund apparently mishandled the money. Payment was delayed and Goodrich was forced to absorb a loss. Nonetheless the organ was judged a success, with “very deep and powerful” tones. Its case was carved mahogany.
The third organ in the Federal Street Church was built by Boston’s leading organ builders of the mid-19th century: the brothers Elias Hook (1805–1881) and George G. Hook (1807–1880). Elias (and possibly George also) apprenticed with Goodrich, and about 1827 the Hooks opened their own organ factory. In 1845 they built a three-manual organ of 40 stops for the Federal Street Church. This organ was considered outstanding and frequently was praised in musical writings. The building also was reported to have fine acoustics. In these accounts the church was referred to as “Dr. Gannett’s church”. According to Harriet Johnson’s 1929 “Handbook of Arlington Street Church”, this organ was sold when the congregation left the Federal Street Church and moved to its present building in 1861.
The E. and G. G. Hook Company was again contracted — to build the organ in the new church. It had three manuals and 44 stops, and its case was the magnificent case which we still view today. Harriet Johnson again reports that this organ “in its day was considered the finest instrument of its kind in the city.” The bellows for the organ were pumped by hand, but in 1869 Dr. Gannett himself gave a hydraulic engine to replace the hand pump.
Two later organs have been installed behind the Hook case. Further research would likely produce a description of the 1861 organ and its tonal properties. However, we can be certain that it was a wonderful instrument and thankful that the case remains. A possible comparison to our 1861 organ would be the still extant organ of three manuals and 46 stops which the Hook firm built in 1863 for the then new Immaculate Conception Church in the South End. It also boasts a magnificent case. This organ has received much publicity as organists and preservationists have attempted to ensure the organ and the church’s preservation, in conflict with remodeling changes begun by the owner Jesuits.
Further research of the Arlington Street Church archives may reveal why the Hook organ was replaced in 1895. Most likely it was because of needed repairs to the Hook, a desire to have newly available electric action in the organ and the fact that the affluent congregation could afford an instrument by Boston’s current leading builder, George Hutchings (1835–1913).
In 1857, a the age of 22, George Hutchings had been employed by the Hook company as a case-maker. His skill was such that he soon was offered the foreman’s position in case making and accepted it upon the insistence of his fellow workmen. He thus would have been one of the chief builders of the Arlington Street Church organ case. In 1861 he left Boston to serve in the Civil War and afterwards returned to the Hook Company. In 1872 Hutchings and Mark Plaisted founded their own firm and in 1887 Hutchings had his own company. In the 1880s and 1890s he was Boston’s choice organ builder. The organ he built for Arlington Street Church had three manuals and 49 stops. In the contract he described the key action: “to be made upon our new and improved electric pneumatic principle… our new and improved tubular pneumatics.” (In 1895, Ernest Skinner, later to be the founder of what would become the Aeolian-Skinner Organ Company, was working at the Hutchings shop on a new type of electric chest action which would eliminate the old tubular-pneumatic system.) It is likely that Hutchings’ “electrified tubular” type of action was not used in many organs.
John Woodworth, Minister of Music, Emeritus, at Arlington Street Church says that the Hutchings organ had a beautiful, mellow sound. But by the 1950s it was in bad repair and inquiries had to be made about either replacing the console or getting a new organ. Many Arlington Street Church members will remember Margaret Beatley who wrote John Woodworth in January, 1955: “I am behind you and the Music Committee on the organ needs one hundred percent and I sincerely hope you get it—the best there is for our beloved church. The Brockton ladies thought the music was fine yesterday and liked the organ. I told them it was ‘on its last legs’.” With the help of the church’s minister, The Reverend Dana Greeley, four donors for a new organ were found and the Aeolian-Skinner Company, then Boston’s leading organ builder, was chosen. The organ consultant was Edward B. Gammons. Some pipework from the Hutchings organ was used in the new organ but was rescaled and revoiced. The organ has three manuals and pedal and has over fifty stops.
Arlington Street Church still is deeply grateful to the four women who gave this organ. The cost was $60,000 which would be over $450,000 in 2006 dollars (however, replacement cost for this organ today would be much higher.) Mabel Daniels was a graduate of Radcliffe College (1900) and received her music doctorate from Boston University. One of her pieces for orchestra was played by the Boston Symphony Orchestra under Koussevitsky. As a composer of vocal and orchestral music, she was a woman working in a man’s field. She was the chair of the Arlington Street Church Music Committee.
There probably is no record of all that Harriet Johnson did at Arlington Street Church. She was an historian, is remembered as a Sunday School teacher and is thought to have been the donor of the Estey organ that was in the chapel. Helen Guild and Mary Guild served for years on the church’s flower committee. They always were concerned about the appearance of the pulpit and the flowers.
Just a few years after the installation of the Aeolian-Skinner organ, the case pipes began to cease playing. Aeolian-Skinner had done only a temporary repair to them. Within 15 years, much of the leather in the organ was cracked and needed replacing. For the past 15 years Arlington Street Church has been having the organ re-leathered. In 1987, as we celebrated the 30th anniversary of the organ more of it is playing that has been in years. The cost of the completing the re-leathering was between $30,000 and $40,000; a major part of that cost was to raise the case pipes up a few inches and build a new system of wind ducts to them. This was the last re-leathering step though the most significant: we can now once again hear the full, deep sounds of the 1861 Hook case pipes.
Readers interested in more information about Boston’s organ builders may consult The Organ in New England by Barbara Owen (The Sunbury Press, 1979). In the early 1970s the Aeolian-Skinner Company closed. Increasingly, Arlington Street Church’s organ is being regarded as an historical instrument of the 1950s.
See the specifications for our organ.