The Spreckels Organ

The Legion of Honor's magnificent pipe organ was built in 1924 by the Ernest M. Skinner Organ Company of Boston. It was given to the Legion for its opening in 1924 by John D. Spreckels in honor of his brother Adolph who co-founded the museum with his wife Alma de Bretteville Spreckels.

The instrument represents the apex of Ernest M. Skinner's (1866–1960) philosophical approach to organ music. Classically, organ builders seek to emphasize the clarity necessary for counterpoint (separate voices moving in conjunction with each other – typical of the music of Bach); however Skinner championed the romantic ideal, reproduction of the rich, full sound of an entire orchestra, capturing its bold symphonic layering of strings, horns, reeds, and even 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 legacy of great instruments (beginning in 1901), Skinner 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 4,526 pipes seamlessly within the structure of the museum. The sound permeates the building primarily through canvas painted to resemble stucco in the ceiling of the Rotunda and in the apse and East wall of the central Rodin Gallery. The impressive walnut, ivory, and ebony console, along with the comprehensive range of stops, along with its 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.

Check the schedule to see when the next public organ concert is taking place. The Legion of Honor’s Spreckels Organ concerts are made possible, in part, with support from the Joseph G. Bradley Charitable Foundation.

Organ Facts

  • The organ's pipes range in size from one-half inch to 32 feet.
  • The apse in the Rodin Gallery is lined with thin cloth, painted to look like stucco in order to allow the organ to "speak" through the fabric.
  • 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 handsomely crafted console is made of walnut, with ivory and ebony keys and stops.
  • The frieze over the main entrance to the museum can be cranked open on rails so that the music can flow out into the Court of Honor. This is therefore probably the first organ in the world to be considered an “indoor/outdoor” organ.
  • The Triumphal Arch at the entrance to the Court of Honor previously contained a Clarion of 44 pipes and ten large Tower Chimes made by the J.C. Deagan Company of Chicago. However, due to their location and exposure to the elements, they never worked reliably and were removed during the Legion’s 1990’s renovation. The chimes went into storage, as they were too large to fit within the main organ, and the Arch Clarion was relocated to the rotunda apse.
  • During the 1990’s renovation, the Arch Clarion’s original 44 note compass was increased to 61 notes completing the rank for the first time in the organ’s history.