The grandeur and beauty of Brooklyn’s church organs, in photos
Houses of worship are hard to miss on the streets of Brooklyn, the borough of churches. And within those hundreds of churches live hundreds of pipe organs, many dating back to the early 20th century.
“An organ, like any musical instrument, it’s a work of art in itself,” said John Wolfe, dean of the Brooklyn chapter of the American Guild of Organists, during a tour of the borough’s most noteworthy organs.
The tour (this year’s is titled “Bach to Brooklyn”) is the guild’s main event, and seeks to examine the history and architecture of Brooklyn’s churches through the organs within them, according to Wolfe.
Each year the chapter looks at a particular neighborhood. This year, four of the stops were in Park Slope, with added stops in Bedford-Stuyvesant and Greenpoint.
In addition to the instruments, Professor Andrew Dolkart of Columbia University gave some background on the history and architecture of the tour’s churches.
Pipe organs and churches go hand in hand, with the sound of the air rushing out of the instruments’ pipes linking with the collected voices singing hymns from the pews, Wolfe said.
“Really the fundamental reason to have all these organs is to aid in worship,” Wolfe said. “When people are in church singing hymns together, that really brings them together in a kind of physical way because they’re breathing together, their hearts, they link up together and also in a spiritual way to participate in that activity.”
1. All Saints Episcopal Church
All Saints Episcopal Church, dating back to 1867, marked the first stop of the tour. The building projects a yellow brick and terra-cotta façade with a large rose window onto Seventh Avenue in Park Slope. Inside, the Delaware Organ Company pipe organ towers at the front of the church.
The present organ was built in the 1970s and is installed behind an earlier organ case. The church’s original organ was installed in 1893.
In order to appreciate the sound of the massive instrument, organist Ellen Wright demonstrated what it could do.
2. Old First Reformed Church
A quick walk down the block brought the tour to the Old First Reformed Church.
The congregation was founded in 1654, serving the people of Breukelen, Flatbush and Flatlands, and the church on Carroll Street was dedicated in 1891 to accommodate the growth of the church.
The building is currently under renovation, and got an entirely new ceiling after the old one collapsed in 2011.
Set up for preaching in an amphitheater-like setting, the church’s organ is situated on a balcony to the side where its notes bend over the ceiling and down onto the congregants. In 1928, the M.P. Moller Company rebuilt the 1891 Roosevelt organ and more work was done on it in 1937.
Aleeza Meir provided the musical performance.
3. St. Philip’s Episcopal Church
The day’s first foray out of Park Slope was to St. Philip’s Episcopal Church in the historic Stuyvesant Heights section of Bedford-Stuyvesant.
The church was first founded in 1899 and had its first service in a vacant store in nearby Weeksville. St. Phillip’s moved to its present location in 1944. It currently shares the block with brownstone row houses and large stand-alone homes.
The installation of its organ came from the Canadian firm of Guilbault-Therien Inc. in 1999. Its console is built with ebony, cow bone, cocobolo wood from North Africa and American oak.
It took more than 7,500 hours of labor to complete the instrument.
Wolfe, as the church’s organist, performed Bach some for the tour.
4. San Damiano Mission
A bus ride from the Stuyvesant Heights historic district to Greenpoint brought the tour through the heart of gentrifying Brooklyn. The church itself, covered in scaffolding, shared the street with an outdoor patio blasting electronic music. Each time organist Tomas Hobson Williams finished a piece, the refrain was accompanied by the pounding bass from across the street.
San Damiano Mission was established in 2015 and occupies the former Holy Family Slovak Catholic Church on Nassau Avenue, which was founded in 1903 for the neighborhood’s Slovakian population.
The Sebastian M. Gluck organ was installed just two years ago and serves as the tour’s newest instrument.
5. St. Saviour Roman Catholic Church
Back in Park Slope, a William E. Baker & Co. organ hangs above and behind the pews at Church of St. Saviour on Eighth Avenue.
The church was established in 1905 and its current organ was rebuilt in 1976. The company enlarged and rebuilt the existing Reuben Midmer & Son organ.
6. Congregation Beth Elohim
The last stop of the tour, Congregation Beth Elohim on Garfield Place, was an outlier. In addition to being the only synagogue on the tour, it was the only location where the current organ was not in working condition.
The Midmer-Losh Organ Company instrument from 1929 still hangs at the front of the building, but the house of worship’s musical performances have taken a more modern approach, including a band with electric and acoustic guitars, upright base, piano and the voices of the congregation’s young children.
The Reform synagogue in Park Slope opened in 1909, but Congregation Beth Elohim dates back to 1861 in Downtown Brooklyn.
Instead of an organ demonstration, cantor Joshua Breitzer played piano and sang with the tour as a way to stoke the involvement of the group on the day’s last stop.