< meta name = "keywords" content = " Austin Organs, organs, John Rose, Trinity College, Asylum Hill Congregational Church, Woodland Street, Woodland St., St. Francis, Charles Miller, Steve Mitchell " /> Austins Legacy Lives On - HartfordInfo.org
Web Sites, Documents and Articles >> Hartford Courant News Articles >

Austin's Legacy Plays On

Hartford Organ Maker To Resume Business, Adding Joy To Asylum Hill Church Concert

May 6, 2005
By MATTHEW ERIKSON, Courant Staff Writer

The news that Austin Organs in Hartford is starting up business again after a two-month break is a welcome relief to its many customers.

Marilyn Austin, board chairwoman of the 112-year-old Hartford company, said Thursday that Austin Organs Inc. will resume business, but "it will be a graduated startup."

The company will take care of orders it had not filled as of the close of business on March 7, she said, and take care of whatever repairs need to be done. Austin made the announcement after a meeting with a turnabout management team exploring options for the reorganization of the company.

"I think it's very good news and well-measured thinking," said John Rose, organist at Trinity College in Hartford. "It's doing something on a scale that can regain people's confidence in the marketplace. They have a venerable history and a very good reputation for building solid instruments. I hope they can pull it off. It's also very good news for Hartford."

Still, the idea that Austin would no longer make or service the organs had been bad news - but not a death sentence for the instruments.

"The dire handwringing [when the company's closing was announced] I don't think was appropriate in terms of being concerned about the viability and maintainability of the instruments," Rose said. "I'm totally convinced that any Austin organ with a mechanical difficulty can be fixed by a qualified technician, whether they need to go to someone else or use different technology to solve a problem. That's the worst of it."

But now its customers can go back to the source.

Trinity's instrument is among the most distinctive and valued Austin organs in the area. Completed in 1971, it replicates the tonal design and console features of 19th-century French instruments.

What makes Austin organs so enduring and fascinating is that each instrument is custom-made and specialized to the sound preferences of its owner. The organ at West Hartford's Temple Beth Israel, for instance, features a shofar stop. The symphonic organ at the Bushnell Center for the Performing Arts includes a Chinese gong, snare drum and 25 chime tubes among its various effects.

Hartford's Immanuel Congregational Church, Christ Church Cathedral and Center Church all have Austins, as do St. John's Episcopal Church and Temple Beth El in West Hartford and First Church of Wethersfield. The company has manufactured organs for customers in places from England to Beijing, as well as the world's largest outdoor organ, in San Diego's Balboa Park.

Many of those instruments share the company's unique, patented design - a single "universal wind chest" that blows compressed air through the pipes and allows a person to walk inside, where all the valves and every portion of the organ mechanism are visible. That feature is unchanged since company founder John Turnell Austin developed it in Detroit in 1893.

It makes repairs of Austin organs easier than for Aeolian-Skinner or Moller organs of similar vintage and style, say those familiar with the instruments.

"It makes it good from a service standpoint," says David Broome, tonal director of Austin Organs for 20 years. On the other hand, he says, the action of the instruments is unique, and many of the parts are made with special machinery.

Broome speculated before the news of the company's restart that even if Austin remained out of business, "a supply company would be able to make the parts eventually." Broome and his son Chris run an organ-restoration business in Windsor Locks. The Austin Organs Service Co. in Avon - independent from the organ-maker and headed by ex-Austin employee Bon Smith - has been in business since 1980.

When the company announced its closing on March 7, the music staff of Asylum Hill Congregational Church had to hustle to get its new organ console from the company's headquarters on Woodland Street near St. Francis Hospital and Medical Center. Organist Charles Miller received an e-mail that morning from Austin Organs president Kimberlee Austin, daughter of Marilyn and Donald Austin. (Donald Austin had been president of the company from 1973 to 1999.) The company was closing its doors at 3:30 p.m. Miller was asked to immediately remove the still-unfinished 900-pound organ console that Austin had been contracted to build for the renovation of the Hartford church's 1962 Aeolian-Skinner organ.

"We were not the only people on loading docks that day. There were several U-Haul trucks lined up," Steve Mitchell, the church's minister of arts, says about the "rescue." "There were a good 25 people there milling about trying to get things loaded. We saw trucks there loading pipes, wind chests and keyboards, and everything they could."

With the help of two of the church's ministers and Tolland organ builder Foley-Baker, Miller and Mitchell lugged the console from the moving van into the church sanctuary. (Luckily for them, it had casters.) Other spare parts belonging to AHCC were recovered from Austin, and a day later the church hired two of the 15 workers formerly employed with the company to finish building the console onsite. Finally, at the Easter morning services, after most of the two-year-long expansion was completed, Miller performed on the instrument for the first time.

Tonight at 8, the refurbished organ receives its formal dedication with a free concert by distinguished organist John Scott, director of music at New York's St. Thomas Church.

Renovations have also occurred at Center Church and Immanuel Congregational. On May 15, Larry Allen, former music director of Immanuel, will perform a dedication recital on that church's refurbished instrument.

More organists will flock to Hartford in June for the regional conference of the American Guild of Organists. And while future maintenance of Austin organs may seem secure, the long-term effect on the Hartford organ community of a slimmed-down company is bound to be a subject of discussion.

According to Rose, the current times have favored smaller, "boutique" builders such as C.B. Fisk in Gloucester, Mass., and Dobson Pipe Organ Builders in Lake City, Iowa, that specialize in mechanical-action organs instead of Austin's electro-pneumatic action.

"I think what Austin needs to assemble is the right group of people in the way that people perceived it in its finest," said Rose. "There was a lot of sadness in the extended Austin family, people who worked there. I hope that group can be accommodated. ... Maybe this is a new opportunity."

Ezequiel Menendez, organist at the Cathedral of St. Joseph, which has the largest Austin organ in Hartford, agreed.

"My reaction [to the reopening] is great, as long as the people who are involved with the company are the ones that brought the company up through many years. Otherwise, you're going to end in failure again."

According to Miller, the quality of the expanded organ at Asylum Hill Congregational Church - the new Austin console, with a new trumpet stop, an expanded bass sound and new ranks of pipes - is stellar. Other work on the instrument was done by Czelusniak et Dugal of Northampton, Mass., which installed the new pipes and rewired the organ.

The Austin factory "made sure all details were looked after," said Miller. "It's a gorgeous instrument, and it plays remarkably well."

Reprinted with permission of the Hartford Courant. To view other stories on this topic, search the Hartford Courant Archives at http://www.courant.com/archives.
| Last update: September 25, 2012 |
Powered by Hartford Public Library  

Includes option to search related Hartford sites.

Advanced Search
Search Tips

Can't Find It? Have a Question?