The 1930 Casavant Organ
According to Jim Landfried, First Church historian and member, the existing organ at First Church was originally dedicated on Sunday, October 26, 1930. The organ was given to the church by Katherine Atkins in memory of her husband Edwin Farnsworth Atkins. A plaque on the side of the organ console reads: “In Memory of Edwin Farnsworth Atkins, 1850-1926.” Edwin F. Atkins was the Parish Chair when The First Church building was dedicated in 1890 and his family had been connected with the church for several generations. The Casavant organ installation was part of a renovation to the Sanctuary that included the addition of the choir loft where the organ console is located and refinishing of the church interiors. A remark made at the time of these changes notes: “…the walls have been painted the color of Caen stone and mouldings were gilded. A new pulpit has been built and the chancel furniture re-finished.” The architect for the renovation was church member, H. Thaxter Underwood. An article in the Belmont Citizen at the time recounted that the organ “…is one of the finest instruments in any of the churches of Greater Boston…and the instrument includes 27 stops, with an average of about 60 speaking pipes in each stop, there being 1619 speaking pipes in all, ranging from the great sixteen foot bourdon to diminutive whistles hardly larger than a lead pencil. In addition, there is an organ harp with 61 notes and chimes with 25 notes. The instrument is electrically driven and has great range and variety.”
The organ was built by the Canadian organ manufacturing company, Casavant Freres. Joseph Casavant (1807-1874) was the first family member involved in organ building. Originally a blacksmith, Joseph Casavant built his first organ in 1840. By the time he retired in 1866, he had built 17 organs, including those for two important Catholic Cathedrals in Bytown (Ottawa) and Kingston, Ontario. His sons, Claver and Samuel eventually continued the company, establishing Casavant Freres in 1879. With this new company, the brothers were able to apply the many new skills that they acquired during a year-long journey to Europe where they traveled extensively and visited organs in many countries. Their business announcement of 1879 stated that, “we are capable of building instruments boasting the most recent innovations such as: concave pedalboard, balanced expression pedal, keyboard improvements, etc.”
Richard Nickerson of Nickerson Pipe Organ Service in Melrose, Massachusetts recently completed the cleaning of The First Church organ, as well as the repainting of the façade pipes. His work was undertaken in two phases. First, the organ’s inner workings (at least 100,000 pieces) were systematically removed, deteriorated materials were replaced, and then all materials were put back in place. During this phase, all 2,000 of the sound pipes stayed in place. At that point, there were discussions about having the entire organ cleaned. However, because the construction of a new Parish Hall was being considered, Nickerson advised the church to wait until any construction was complete before the cleaning was undertaken.
In 2009, Nickerson embarked on the second phase of the organ cleaning. This involved removing all of the sound pipes (with the exception of the very largest; those were removed and cleaned during the first phase in order to access the organ’s inner workings) and vacuuming and cleaning both the cabinets and the pipes. The pipes were then carefully packed and transported to Nickerson’s workshop in Melrose. Additional cleaning was done there. Then, each pipe was put on a voicing machine to regulate the voice of each pipe.
Interestingly, the pipes that one sees from the pews are purely decorative and do not produce sound. These façade pipes conceal the internal
sound pipes: the Pedal division, the Great division and the Swell division. The round, carved wooden grill above the chancel conceals the Choir division of the organ. The semi-circular openings on the left and right walls of the chancel also allow sound to enter the sanctuary. During the recent cleaning project, some façade pipes were in need of repair. These were transported to pipe repair specialist, Tom Anderson of North Easton, MA. Here, the pipes were re-soldered and re-rounded. After this was complete, the pipes were returned to Melrose where they were re-washed and then re-painted with 2 coats of gold paint. Prior to the repainting, The First Church congregation was shown sample paint colors and voted on their preferred tone of gold. During the painting process, great care was taken in the handling of the pipes so as not to get oils on them. Once painted, a coat of clear acrylic sealer was applied so that the pipes could be safely handled in the future. The pipes were then carefully returned to the church and re-installed.
When the organ was first dedicated in 1930, a series of public organ recitals was held to celebrate. The words of the October 25, 1930 Belmont Citizen article, remain relevant: “All music lovers in Belmont will appreciate the opportunity of hearing the noblest type of music played upon this fine instrument.”