The Skinner Organ

Organ Facts

  • The organ was given to the people of San Francisco by John D. Spreckels in 1924.
  • The organ's pipes range in size from one-half inch to 32 feet.
  • The apse in the Rodin Gallery is thin cloth, trompe l'oeil-painted to look like marble in order to allow the organ to "speak" through the dome.
  • An organ is an acoustic wind instrument. Three high pressure turbines with a total of 48 horsepower provide the main wind supply for the organ's pneumatic system.
  • Skinner was famous for building organs with the capacity to imitate orchestral colors such as the English horn, clarinet, French horn, and oboe; this organ has pneumatically operated percussion instruments, a set of large tubular chimes, and a thunder pedal as well.
  • The organ's beautifully crafted console is made of walnut, with ivory and ebony keys and stops.
  • The frieze over the main entrance to the museum is made of plaster and can be cranked open on rails so that the music can be heard in the Court of Honor.
  • The Triumphal Arch at the entrance to the Court of Honor also contains pipes and ten large chimes, concealed behind new louvered doors that can be opened during performances.

The Legion's magnificent Skinner pipe organ was built in 1924 by the Ernest M. Skinner Organ Company in Boston. Public organ concerts are presented at the Legion on Saturdays and Sundays at 4 pm, with a repertoire ranging from Bach to Gershwin to musical thunderstorms, Sousa marches, Gilbert and Sullivan, and the great film music of Hollywood.

The instrument represents the apex of Ernest M. Skinner's philosophical approach to organ music. The classic ideal for the instrument seeks to emphasize the elaborately intricate voices moving in opposition that characterizes baroque musical styles. In contrast, Skinner championed the romantic ideal, which reproduces the rich, full sound of an entire orchestra, capturing its bold symphonic layering of strings, horns, reeds, and percussion. The sound is meant to resonate in a non-directional manner, creating a musical quality that seems to float, saturating the space with its presence. Through a series of businesses, beginning with the Ernest M. Skinner Company of Boston in 1901, the talented inventor left an indelible mark on American cultural history, implementing many innovations that almost single-handedly raised the organ to the premier status it gained in the first half of the twentieth century as an instrument of unparalleled majesty.

Working with the Legion of Honor architect George Applegarth (1875–1972), Skinner developed a customized plan to accommodate the 4500 pipes seamlessly within the structure of the museum, primarily through a canvas apse painted to look like marble in this gallery. The impressive mahogany, ivory, and ebony console, along with the comprehensive range of stops and additional effects, make this one of the world's finest organs, comparable with Skinner's other masterful achievements at the Cathedral of St. John the Divine in New York City and at Washington Cathedral in the nation's capitol.

Photos of the Legion's Skinner Organ from Flickr