Skinner Organ Company, Opus 783, 1929
Benjamin D. Phillips built Elm Court in 1929 as an English Gothic-Tudor manor house for his family in Butler, Pennsylvania. Designed by Pittsburgh architect Benno Jannsen, Elm Court was so named for the huge elm tree that at one time flourished in the main courtyard. The house is constructed of cut and dressed stone, embellished with leaded glass windows and thick slate roofs. A long winding drive leads up from the main entrance gate and culminates in an impressive double row of stately trees that herald the approach to the house.
Elm Court has had only a very few owners since it was built, and each of these has taken sensitive care of the house and its carefully manicured grounds. In the 1980s the estate was purchased by Mr. Frederick R. Koch for use as a private residence. The new owner tripled the size of the house in an architecturally seamless manner, reproducing the various details of the original house with admirable faithfulness. Included in the work was the restoration of the Skinner player organ located above the ceiling of the Main Stair Hall.
The pipes and mechanism of the instrument are placed in two side-by-side expression boxes that are perched on a shelf over the ceiling tone openings. Within these divisions are duplex windchests that permit any stop in the organ to be played with or against any other stop, thus allowing an enormous amount of musical flexibility comparable to that of a much larger instrument. At Elm Court one can hear the clever result of the Skinner company’s motto for its residence organs: multum in parvo (much from little). There are a total of fifteen ranks in twelve registers, with a total of 975 pipes.
Upon inspection in 1989 the organ was found to be in completely original condition. As the inspection proceeded, one could see footprints left in the dust of decades in the organ chamber. The organ was like a time capsule from 1929, a perfectly preserved example of the musical and technological expertise of the Skinner Organ Company. A more suitable candidate for restoration could not be imagined.
In 1990 the organ largely was removed from the house and taken to New Haven for a full restoration. All of the pneumatic leather membranes were replaced with identical new material; the regulators, swell engines, tremolos were rebuilt; and every pipe was washed, repaired and regulated for original speech characteristics. The result is a splendid instrument well-suited to its acoustical environment, its technology completely intact and fully operational. The Elm Court roll library is comprehensive; listening to this extraordinary instrument reproduce the genius of its creators is an unforgettable experience. One-time architectural critic for The New York Times, Ada Louise Huxtable, once suggested that a society could be judged as much for what it allowed to remain as for what it created. The survival of Opus 783 is a remarkable achievement by any measurement.