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
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
"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
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
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
Reprinted with permission of the Hartford Courant.
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